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HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: John Cameron Mitchell, Andrea Martin, Michael Pitt, Miriam Shor
Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Video: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen
Audio: 5.1 Dolby Digital, DTS Surround Sound
Subtitles: English
Features: See Review
Studio: New Line Cinema
Length: 91 Minutes
Release Date: December 11, 2001

Film ****

The new century has been a kind one for the movie musical, which has been making a spirited comeback on the silver screen.  It began in 2001 when one rather flamboyant musical received the lion's share of the summertime press coverage.  The film was a whirlwind of color and movement, and critics showered accolades upon it.  Audiences were perhaps less enthusiastic in their reaction to the film’s genre-defying though somewhat out-of-control approach, but there was certainly no denying that it was quite daring and visually creative.  Come Oscar time, the film received numerous nominations.  That film was Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge.  And it was hardly the best musical of the year.  Not by a long shot. 

That honor belonged completely to Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Originally an off-Broadway production, Hedwig received only a limited theatrical release with almost no media fanfare.  Yet it was clearly a labor of love for its creator and director John Cameron Mitchell.  He had originated the character on-stage and reprised it again for this film.  His boundless energy and obvious enthusiasm are immediately evident from the very start of the film, which is decidedly off-beat but always entertaining.

I'm not even sure how to describe the plot.  I usually try to keep an open mind when watching a new movie, but to be honest, I avoided this film for a long time because the story just seemed too bizarre.  The general plot, in a nutshell, chronicles the trials and tribulation of Hansel, an East German Berliner.  In the days prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, he is captivated by an American soldier stationed in Berlin.  They wish to marry, and after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Hansel undergoes a botched sex-change operation to marry the soldier.  Off they go to America, but soon thereafter, they split.  Hansel, in the midst of an identity crisis, decides that his destiny lies in his transformation into Hedwig, lead singer for a glam-rock band, the Angry Inch.  Together, they seek their fortune in America's heartlands.  On the road to supposed fame, Hedwig develops a relationship with Tommy (Michael Pitt from TV's Dawson’s Creek), the son of a highly religious man.  Tommy later plagiarizes Hedwig’s tunes and uses them to propel himself to great teeny-bopper fame.  And thus, the film commences late in the story with Hedwig scheming to reclaim his fame with his band, the Angry Inch, while stalking Tommy either for a confrontation or for a reconciliation of sorts.  Got all that?

Did you just roll your eyes?  I did too, initially!

Yes, the plot left me in stunned disbelief too when I read about it, but on celluloid, it works and works well.  While Moulin Rouge was a chaotic mess at times, Hedwig is well-directed and never confusing. The narrative is obviously not linear and jumps wildly between past and present, first person and third person, yet always with ease and narrative clarity.  Always humorous, but never corny, Hedwig is quite a trip, somewhat like a superior combination of Rocky Horror and Pink Floyd’s The Wall.  That the film remains focused, amusing, and constantly entertaining is a great tribute to Mitchell, a first-time film director. 

All this talk, and I haven't even gotten to the true heart and soul of the film - the music!  The humorous story serves as the framework for some of the most instantly infectious and addictive rock tunes ever heard on film.  There have been rock operas in the past, but Hedwig is the best.  Period.  Imagine a hybrid of Saturday Night Fever with the theme to Fame, spiced with a heavy dose of KISS and Robert Palmer’s “Bad Case of Lovin’ You” and you will have an idea of how good the music is.  The initial tune, "Tear Me Down," plays during the opening credits, and it is practically an instant guitar-rock classic from its first hook-heavy bars.

The rock anthem, "The Origin of Love," is the best song and comes mid-way through the film.  The ONLY reason it did not win the Best Original Song Oscar category in 2001 is that it comes from the stage musical and is thus not “original”.  Ah well, so goes the world.  Most of the Hedwig songs are of such a high caliber that they are practically all Oscar-worthy, which is quite a statement for a film that had its origins on a seedy, off-Broadway hotel stage.

In spite of its humble beginnings, Hedwig is clearly an immensely enjoyable film.  It is only a matter of time before the film gains the wild cult status that its stage cousin has enjoyed for many years now.

Video ****

Gorgeous.  New Line, from their Platinum Series to their Infinifilm Series to their Lord of the Rings standard bearer, makes the most consistently top-line DVDs on the market.  Period.  Hedwig, as part of their Platinum Series, carries on this fine tradition quite admirably.  The colors are bold and bright, and the transfer is practically perfect with no significant artifacts anywhere.  I really have nothing bad to say about the video at all.

Audio ****

Thunderously awesome.  I started watching this DVD as an un-believer and by the end of the film, I was a wildly enthusiastic convert.  The film is infused with incredible energy and totally rockin' songs.  Some of the songs have been shortened from their Broadway versions for the film, but they lose none of their potency.  As a bonus, there are a few new tunes in the film, so viewers already acquainted with the soundtrack will have more to enjoy.

And that DTS soundtrack!  WOW!  It simply needs to be heard to be believed.  It is the very definition of LOUD.  The bass is tremendous and will rock the house!  With these songs, you will be sorely tempted to crank up the volume, neighbors or no neighbors!

Again, I have nothing bad to say!

Features ****

There are some of the usual suspects - trailer, filmographies and some deleted scenes which do not really amount to much.  However, the filmmaker commentary by Mitchell is quite nice and at times even humorous and insightful.

My favorite feature, though, is a jukebox option that lets you listen to any or all of the songs outside of the film.  You can listen in DTS, too!  Trust me, once Hedwig’s tunes get into your mind, you may find yourself using this function quite a lot.  All musicals should have this feature.

The jukebox, however, is still not the best feature.  The best feature is the ninety minute documentary, Whether You Like it or Not: The Story of Hedwig, on the making of the stage musical and the movie.  It’s like getting two movies for the price of one!  The documentary is funny, entertaining, and very personable.  As narrator and host, John Cameron Mitchell takes the viewer through his constant struggles with nay-sayers to turn his vision into one of  the most successful and original musicals from New York City in ages.  We see the transformed, seedy hotel that becomes the stage for the initial production of Hedwig.  We catch glimpses of some of the actors who have also portrayed Hedwig (Ally Sheedy, for one!).  We even see some of the fanatic fans (many of whom have seen the stage musical dozens of times).  And of course, we see a lot of fascinating tidbits about the creative process, too.  It is a superb DVD original documentary, one of the finest.  The only one in my experience that is better is Fearful Symmetry (from To Kill a Mockingbird DVD), a documentary so incredible that it would be worth buying the DVD just for it alone, even if the film weren't already a masterpiece.

Summary:

A huge Off-Broadway smash, Hedwig has a fanatically enthusiastic following.  The film succeeds in capturing the magic and energy of the stage musical so perfectly that it will convert even the most incredulous of former non-believers (such as myself).  And the DVD...wow!  I bow down to New Line.  Highly recommended with no reservations whatsoever!