While watching "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," all kinds of poster-quote comparisons popped into my head to describe this weird and wry, sardonic and ironic concoction of transsexual punk rock melancholy-mirth.
It has the cult potential (and off-Broadway origins) of a "Rocky Horror," but while it is similarly a low-budget, tongue-in-cheek musical centered around gender confusion, it's far more sagacious and polished.
I toyed with calling it the anti-"Josie and the Pussycats," since it's the polar opposite of that recent flop's backhanded endorsement of rock'n'roll commercialism and capricious pop pap. But "Hedwig" is such a uniquely entertaining and original work of musical-dramedy invention, it deserves better than to be compared to anything that has come before it.
Refined by writer-director-star John Cameron Mitchell to a sharp comical point through seven years of stage incarnations, "Hedwig" is the story of a flamboyant and frustrated "internationally ignored songstress" who bitterly takes the stage night after night in a dumpy chain of seafood restaurants (called "Bilgewater's") while her musical protégé enjoys lavish MTV prosperity.
The product of an East Berlin upbringing and a botched sex change (thus the "Angry Inch"), Hedwig is a Ziggy Stardust-meets-Joan Rivers drag queen in a starched, platinum Farrah wig. An angry, aging punk prima donna with a pensive stage presence, her nightly concerts include vamping through hilariously caustic but matter-of-fact monologues in between the forceful belting-out of cathartic hardcore tunes (that generally scare the bejezus out of the unsuspecting Bilgewater's patrons).
As an actor, Mitchell explores so vividly Hedwig's manic frustration with life that she becomes completely sympathetic and even sad despite the fact that she's a tantrum-prone hellcat who drives her disenchanted back-up band crazy.
As a writer and director he abets himself with fantastically quotable dialogue and a series of flashbacks that explain how a fey young man named Hansel became Hedwig. After falling for a saucy, manly American GI who paid for him to become a her, Hedwig married and moved to an army base trailer park in Junction City, Kansas -- where she was shortly abandoned.
Musically inclined but stuck in years of babysitting jobs to make ends meet, she eventually formed a band and met a talented, pouty, underage pretty boy (the perfectly-cast Michael Pitt) whom she took under her musical and sexual wing, giving him the stage name Tommy Gnosis.
"In three months we were out-grossing monster trucks in Wichita," Hedwig narrates. But before long Tommy took off with her song book and the image she concocted for him, and now he's the hottest new thing on the rock scene -- with rabid screaming teenage groupies and the whole nine yards.
Back in the film's present, Hedwig's is pursuing a lawsuit while shadowing Tommy's stadium tour with her Bilgewater gigs, garnering tabloid publicity as his rumored transgender ex-lover.
"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" is nothing if not bizarre. But it also has a surprisingly poignant undercurrent about seeking the kind of love that makes you feel complete. Hedwig is a resentfully lonely, dysfunctional wreck after having been screwed over by the two most significant men in her life. "It is clear I must find my other half," she says, "But is it a he or a she? Identical to me or complimentary?"
Mitchell the director has a great command of his storytelling, employing all kinds of creative cinematic techniques, including illustrating Hedwig's desire to find her soul mate through hypnotic, dreamlike animation sequences featuring yin-yang-ish stick figures melding together like spooning lovers. It's an odd narrative choice, but it's just one of many things that make this film so gratifyingly unique.
Mitchell the writer contributes such droll quips that I found myself trying to copy Hedwig's song intros and conversations verbatim in my notes at the screening. ("Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?" asks a Jehovah's Witness knocking on the door of Hedwig's Kansas trailer. "No," she snaps, "but I love his work.")
Song writer, lyricist and co-star Steven Trask (who plays Hedwig's tolerant and brow-beaten guitarist) contributes immeasurably to the movie's incredible, vivacious but choleric spirit by infusing the many stage gigs and sometimes spontaneous musical numbers with brilliant Ramones- and Bowie-influenced, sing-a-long melodies that will make you want to leave the theater and go straight to the record store to buy the soundtrack.
Mitchell the actor makes the package complete by instilling Hedwig's screen-bursting, multi-dimensional, pansexual persona with such intrinsic, convincing, magnetic idiosyncrasies that it's inevitable she will become a cult figure. (Halloween is only four months away. Buy your big foam Hedwig hair now!)
If only movies didn't get released on video six months after they're in the theaters, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" would, without question, be the next great midnight movie.