Inch Worm

'Hedwig' is a great, if anatomically incorrect, rock musical.

If there are two sweeter words in the English language than "rock musical," I don't know what they are. Who can forget Xanadu, Phantom of the Paradise (with the inimitable Paul Williams) or my all-time favorite, Lisztomania, which starred Who vocalist Roger Daltrey's tawny nipples. Yes, his tawny ones.

In keeping with the tradition of focusing rock musicals on performer's body parts, Hedwig and the Angry Inch tells the tale of a sex-change operation gone bad, leaving our hero/ine with the titular angry inch (talk about a bit part!). Hedwig (née Hansel) doesn't take this lying down, though. Well, she does, but in an active way. She gets a number of jobs ("most of them blow") and moves from the repressive climes of Soviet Eastern Europe to the world of Glam Rock, the last refuge for the sexually ambiguous.

Along the way she discovers the varied talents of a young boy whom she renames Tommy Gnosis, turning him into a rock star and sending him to the top of the pop charts with a blend of heavy metal and heavy petting. Of course Tommy needs to pretend he got there on his own, and so Hedwig is written out of his life history, thus presenting her with the central conflict needed to make her story cinematic.

In response to being dissed, Hedwig and her band of East German rockers go on a shadow tour, following Tommy Gnosis around the country and trying to get credit for the songs Hedwig co-wrote. And what songs! Songwriter Stephen Trask (formerly of the unforgettable band Strep Pussy) has written pop ditties that are epic in scope and eclectic in influence. For example, within the course of the film's most inspired number, "The Origin of Love," Trask manages to cite Aristophanes' speech from Plato's Symposium, the rock stylings of Meatloaf and ancient Egyptian flood mythology. Bono, eat your heart out!

What really sells Hedwig, though, is John Cameron Mitchell's performance in the title role (he plays Hedwig, not the Angry Inch). Giving what is probably the best rendition of an East German rocker with a Barbie-doll crotch in the history of cinema (or ancient Greek theater, for that matter), Mitchell is constantly on. He soars in the musical numbers, which are dreamy sequences featuring simple, line-drawing animations, and the kind of choreography and staging that Bob Fosse would have put together if he were hip, gay and still alive.

But even when Mitchell is not performing, he's performing. Every stare, gesture and utterance has a stagy, studied perfection to it, as though he were merely some idealized figment of some Broadway bit player's imagination. This is big "A" acting that works, a completely unnatural performance that is so cohesive and consistent that it becomes a new nature. It's acting as ballet.

It doesn't hurt that the dialogue (also written by Mitchell, who directed as well) is so sharp. When Tommy asks Hedwig if she's accepted Jesus as her personal savior, she replies "No, but I love his work!" This kind of ceaseless wit is played out in the background elements of the screenplay as well: The band plays at a women's music festival called "The Menses Fair," Hedwig's East German apartment is so small that her mother tells her to "play in the oven," and most of the performances take place in the "Bickleford's" chain of generic diners, where middle-aged, middle-class patrons react in polite horror to Hedwig's tales of polysexual love.

Mitchell is so good that the other players get overshadowed, but they're also uniformly excellent, especially Miriam Shor as Yitzhak, Hedwig's heavy-metal coiffed backup singer and current husband. His tough-guy look, high-pitched singing and desire to join the cruise-ship company of Rent would make him ridiculous if it weren't for the pathos he brings to the role. He really lets you know how it feels to be married to an unsexed third-rate superstar.

The cinematography is by Frank DeMarco, who was special-effects artist on a similar film, 1984's The Terminator, a movie about a robot that also had no genitalia. He uses that experience to give Hedwig a brightly-lit, glamorous look that veers into weird, expressionist dreaminess as needed. There are some smashingly surreal sequences, such as one of the young Hedwig (in her pre-operative Hans persona) following a trail of candy to her "sugar daddy," and some eerily real ones, like when Hedwig is playing a show at a laundromat with a band composed of the Korean wives of U.S. G.I.s.

All throughout, as Hedwig's story veers back and forth between her recollections of the past and her present quest for artistic recognition, it never lags. It's easily one of the best two or three movies so far this year, and John Cameron Mitchell's performance is one of the best in the last decade. Someone should alert the Academy that they can finally give the statue to someone for whom it would be anatomically correct.

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