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'Hedwig' Measures Up

Movie Review

John Cameron Mitchell's film is an absorbing adaptation.

July 20, 2001|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the screen, the rip-roaring rock musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" retains all the excitement and energy it had on stage while adding depth, clarity and emotional texture. The result is a movie that absorbs its theatricality so smoothly and imaginatively that it never feels merely like a stage adaptation.

John Cameron Mitchell, the film's writer-director in his feature debut, adds further laurels to his accomplishments in having written and starred in the play, charged by Stephen Trask's wrenching lyrics and hard-driving music.

The odyssey of self-discovery and self-acceptance on the part of Hedwig, born in Berlin just as the Wall was built in 1961, has its inspiration in Plato's tale of how humans once were born with two sets of arms and legs and two faces peering out of one head. Because the gods feared mortals' power, Zeus split us in half, condemning us to search the world for our other half.

This myth is expressed with beautiful simplicity and wit in Emily Hubley's animated sequences and artwork that become part of the film's solidly structured narrative. It allows Mitchell et al to transform the lurid and outrageous into the evocative and poignant, incorporating a shift in tone from camp humor to camp pathos.

Raised in East Berlin by a single mother (Alberta Watson), Hansel (Mitchell) grows up enthralled by the rock music he listens to on American Armed Forces radio. As a slim teenager, he is spotted sunbathing in the nude by Luther (Maurice Dean Wint), a U.S. Army sergeant, who mistakes him for a girl until Hansel turns around, revealing he's no Gretel.

Undaunted, Luther pursues Hansel, who falls in love with him so deeply he agrees to dress as a woman. However, if Hansel is to accompany Luther back to his Kansas military base as his wife, he must pass a physical exam to be permitted to marry the sergeant, allowing him to leave East Germany.

With his mother's urging, who passes on to him her name and a false I.D., Hansel unenthusiastically submits to a sex change operation that is to transform him into Hedwig. Unfortunately, the operation is botched, leaving him less than the young man he was but not quite a woman either, giving the story its title.

No sooner does Hedwig land in a Kansas trailer park than Luther runs off with another slim youth. When baby-sitting and prostitution pale and the depth of despair is reached, what's Hedwig to do? Reinvent herself as a rock star with a Farrah Fawcett blond wig.

When we meet Hedwig, she's plenty angry about everything, not just that operation. Her unflaggingly staunch manager Phyllis (Andrea Martin, the one and only) has booked her into a seafood restaurant chain, Bilgewater's, situated in the shopping malls of America.

Backed by an Eastern European band--one of whose members is composer-lyricist Trask--Hedwig tears into her anthems of rage, despair and longing, performing as if she were racing over a stadium stage instead of the aisles of a generic family restaurant with a preponderance of elderly customers. Hedwig is telling her life story in her songs, continuing it in conversations with her band offstage and gradually triggering a series of flashbacks that culminates in her tale of love and betrayal involving her discovery, the soaring rock star Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt).

Mitchell and his raft of gifted colleagues on both sides of the camera accomplish this ever-expanding range of Hedwig's confessions with graceful fluidity and increasing meaning, the Berlin Wall symbolizing the divided self. The specific issue of gender identity raised by Hedwig's cruel surgical plight extends to the eternal inner conflict between the need to accept one's self and the desperate craving for changes believed to be required to be accepted and loved by others. Hedwig demands the love and acceptance from others that she cannot give to herself.

For all its serious subtext, the movingly affirmative "Hedwig" is raucous, racy and full of hilarious, lowdown survivor's wit.

The wiry Mitchell as Hedwig is an explosive dynamo who understands the power of contrasting calm and quiet, and whose emotional range is as awe-inspiring as his sharp comic timing. Pitt is persuasive in his transformation from wide-eyed teen to decadent rock star, and Miriam Shor is effectively understated as Yitzhak, Hedwig's underappreciated backup singer and lover.

Cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco creates the bravura and highly varied images necessary in bringing alive the film on a visual level, and production designer Therese DePrez painstakingly creates Hedwig's many worlds. Arianne Phillips' costumes and Mike Potter's hairstyles and makeup for Hedwig manage to go way over the top without losing a sense of style.

Andrew Marcus' editing is crucial in helping Mitchell maintain the sense of pace and movement essential in achieving "Hedwig and the Angry Inch's" exceptionally successful transposition from stage to screen.

MPAA rating: R, for sexual content and language. Times guidelines: language, strong adult themes and situations.

'Hedwig and the Angry Inch'

John Cameron Mitchell: Hedwig

Andrea Martin: Phyllis Stein

Michael Pitt: Tommy Gnosis

Miriam Shor: Yitzhak

Maurice Dean Wint: Sgt. Luther Robinson

A Fine Line Features presentation of a Killer Films production. Writer-director John Cameron Mitchell. Adapted from a work for the stage with text by Mitchell and music and lyrics by Stephen Trask. Producers Christine Vachon, Katie Roumel, Pamela Koffler. Executive producers Michael De Luca, Amy Henkels, Mark Tusk. Cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco. Animation sequences and artwork by Emily Hubley. Editor Andrew Marcus. Composer-lyricist Stephen Trask. Costumes Arianne Phillips. Hedwig's hair and makeup by Mike Potter. Production designer Therese DePrez. Art director Jim Donahue. Set decorator Rona De Angelo. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.

At selected theaters.

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