The brassy title derives from the fact that Hedwig, born Hansel, underwent an unsuccessful sex change operation when marrying an officer to flee an oppressive, still-halved Berlin. His childhood isn't a pretty picture, so it's easy enough to imagine the desperation strong enough to drive him towards accepting the drastic change. Hansel wouldn't have had a problem adapting to womanhood as he considered himself a "girly boy" anyway, but with a one-inch penis and no breasts, his difficulties increase.
Once in America, Hedwig's husband leaves him for another boy. Hedwig gets by with odd jobs and finds solace in American music. Inspired by artists like David Bowie, heard over American Forces Radio while in Germany, Hedwig joins up with a band and writes songs based on his life.
Now it's arguable that someone bitching about their dysfunctional life for an hour and a half could be depressing, boring, or otherwise not worth the bother. But Hedwig is such a charismatic protagonist that this is never an issue. He's high maintenance for anyone in his circle, and even cruel to those most patient with him. On the flipside, he's full of contagious humor and self-sacrifice for his passion, be it people or music. He has an admirable presence whenever he walks in a room, and it's not just because he's in drag.
Sadly, the film lacks some of the emotional intimacy that occurs when watching a live performance. Instead of all the musical numbers occurring over one evening's performance, Hedwig's gigs are spread out through different dives. Each stop is carefully planned to follow the more popular Tommy Gnossis, Hedwig's ex-lover/now-enemy. This only gets monotonous when each audience, excepting the last, have the same drawn, scared look on their faces as Hedwig belts out his unfortunate life story.
The story takes great advantage of the film medium by using animated fantasy images to convey Hedwig's ultimate purpose to find his other half. Flashbacks, normally used in films as easy exposition, give the circumstances of Hedwig's life more weight. It is far more spellbinding to actually see Hansel fall for the officer, and Hedwig's early connection with Tommy, than it is to simply hear about it from painted lips.
Another accomplishment is the film's ability to combine music and a dramatic story on screen. Usually when someone bursts into song in a film, an audience will cower in a corner to cover their ears and watch for facial muscles to relax. But because music is Hedwig's life, and therapy, it is just as pertinent to the story as his daily life and flashbacks. And because the music varies in tempo and lyrical style, it compliments Hedwig's rocky journey.
For a hard knocks story, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is an enjoyable ride. You'll either sit back and say "At least my life is better than that," or simply be amazed at how good a musical movie about a half-woman, half-man can be.
The DVD is a perfect match for the film, beautifully presented and with crystal clear sound, and the Hedwig obsessed will find the extras superb. A documentary (only 5 minutes shorter than the film itself) tells the story of Mitchell from child to movie star -- with a large section on the original stage play (with a few shots taken at its premiere). Mitchell and his director of photography provide a feature-length commentary track, and they also offer insights into a handful of deleted scenes. A great disk.
Doin' the time warp.
Run time: 95 mins
In Theaters: Friday 27th July 2001
Box Office USA: $1.5M
Distributed by: New Line Cinema
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Fresh: 97 Rotten: 8
IMDB: 7.8 / 10
Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Starring: John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig, Michael Aronov as Schlatko, Andrea Martin as Phyllis Stein, Miriam Shor as Yitzhak, Stephen Trask as Skszp, Theodore Liscinski as Jacek, Rob Campbell as Krzysztof, Michael Pitt as Tommy Gnosis, Maurice Dean Wint as Sgt. Luther