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Hedwig and the Angry Inch: Platinum Series

New Line Home Entertainment

Starring John Cameron Mitchell and Michael Pitt

Written by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask
Directed by John Cameron Mitchell

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

Never, ever, ever has there been a musical like Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Audacious, flamboyant, electric — and with genuinely good rock songs! — writer/director/star John Cameron Mitchell's tour de force debut is the sort of jaw-dropping appearance on the scene previously accomplished by the likes of Orson Welles and Kenneth Branagh. Even if Mitchell never directed another film, Hedwig would stand a brilliant piece of work that's a fine legacy all on its own.

That sounds like the most overblown of hyperbole, but it's not. Hedwig began as an actor's exercise by Mitchell, an Obie-award winner with a successful New York stage career. He created the title character, a singer from East Berlin who'd suffered a botched sex-change operation, as a performance piece for "drag karaoke" night at the New York nightclub Squeezebox. He and composer-lyricist Stephen Trask used the Squeezebox performances as a chance to try out new songs and dialogue for the character and created an enormously successful off-Broadway show. It developed a cult following, was performed in several cities (and even on college campuses) internationally, and eventually translated to film.

The ultra-glam punk opera is a deftly created story of division, duality and healing. It's all told through the songs and reminiscences of transsexual rocker Hedwig, who's touring a chain of crappy seafood restaurants (called "Bilgewater's") with her group, The Angry Inch. In the show's opening song, "Tear Me Down," she sings, "I was born on the other side of a town ripped in two ..." and goes on to describe how desperately, back when she was called "Hansel," she wanted to escape Germany. We see her as a small boy lying in his apartment's tiny kitchen with his head in the oven for privacy, listening to 80's rock on Armed Forces Radio. In his late teens, Hansel meets a horny American G.I. named Luther and jumps at the chance to get married in the U.S. — taking Luther's advice that to "to walk away, you gotta leave something behind." The results are revealed in one of the show's most blistering rock songs, "Angry Inch":

My sex-change operation got botched
My guardian angel fell asleep on the watch
Now all I got is a Barbie Doll-crotch ...
Six inches forward and five inches back
I got an angry inch ...

Her husband leaves her stranded in the Junction City, Kansas, living in a trailer near the Army Base. She gets by with a series of odd jobs ("Mostly," she says, "that job we call 'blow'") and falls for Tommy (Michael Pitt), the 17-year-old son of an Army general for whom she babysits. Hedwig introduces Tommy to the wonders of rock — she takes away his Frampton Comes Alive album and replaces it with Lou Reed, David Bowie and Iggy Pop — teaches him to play guitar, writes songs with him, and christens him Tommy Gnosis. When Tommy goes off to become a rock superstar — taking the songs and leaving her, once more, behind in the trailer — Hedwig hits the road with her own band, determined to get the recognition she deserves for her music.

What sets Hedwig apart from other rock musicals is the intricate way in which the songs — gorgeously crafted and heavily inspired by Mitchell/Hedwig's idols Bowie, Reed and Iggy — add to the depth of the film's story. The central set-piece of the film is an animated segment showcasing the beautiful ballad, "Origin of Love," which riffs on Aristophanes speech from Plato's Symposium to explain why humans search for partners:

When the earth was still flat, and the clouds made of fire
And mountains stretched up to the sky, sometimes higher
Folks roamed the earth like big rolling kegs.
They had two sets of arms, they had two sets of legs.
They had two faces peering out of one giant head
So they could watch all around them as they talked while they read.
And they never knew nothing of love ...

Now the gods grew quite scared of our strength and defiance
And Thor said, "I'm gonna kill 'em all with my hammer like I killed the giants."
And Zeus said, "No, you better let me use my lightning like scissors
Like I cut the legs off the whales and made dinosaurs into lizards."
Then he grabbed up some bolts and he let out a laugh
Said, "I'll split them right down the middle — gonna cut them right up in half."

Mitchell, with his Broadway voice and delicate features (he looks remarkably like a cross between actresses Rachel Griffiths and Juliette Lewis) is stupendous as Hedwig, the costumes are amazing — Hedwig wears 41 different outfits in the film — and, as mentioned before, the music outstanding. Funny, inspiring, original and deftly directed — with songs you'll keep singing for weeks after — Hedwig is a class act.

New Line's Hedwig and the Angry Inch: Platinum Series is beautifully presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) with DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, as well as Dolby 2.0 Surround. For a movie with such a low, low budget, you'd never guess it from the presentation here. The disc includes a wonderful commentary track by the John Cameron Mitchell with his director of photography Frank De Marco, which is funny, scene-specific and informative. Also included is a fabulous 90-minute documentary, Whether You Like It or Not: The Story of Hedwig, which could serve as the standard bearer for behind-the-scenes featurettes. It covers not only the origins of the Hedwig stage production — with video from the early Squeezebox performances and the off-Broadway production — but talks to other actors who played the role on stage, songwriter Trask, costume and set designers, and even Mitchell's parents. More than just a bland promo piece, this secondary feature is an extraordinarily entertaining film in its own right. Also on board are deleted scenes with director commentary, cast-and-crew bios, the theatrical trailer and song-by-song access to the film.

— Dawn Taylor

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