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With: John Cameron Mitchell, Michael Pitt, Miriam Shor, Stephen Trask, Andrea Martin
Written by: John Cameron Mitchell
Directed by: John Cameron Mitchell
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content and language
Running Time: 95
Date: 19/01/2001

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

How the 'Inch' Stole Summer

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Anyone used to listening to today's hyper-sterilized, highly inflexible, unimaginative radio will find themselves jolted to the back of the theater while watching the new Hedwig and the Angry Inch -- a huge hit at both the SF International Film Festival and the SF Lesbian and Gay Film Festival -- and a rock 'n' roll movie that remembers what it's like to truly rock and roll.

In other words, when Hedwig -- or her rival Tommy Gnosis -- sing, they sing about stuff that truly means something to them. And they can rage, rant, and vent to their hearts content while sweating in the spotlight. The catchy, powerful music reveals a love for the glam-rock 70s acts like David Bowie, as well as pre-punk pioneers such as Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and Iggy Pop. (Not to mention the sweet, searing guitar work of Bob Mould, formerly of Husker Du.)

The blonde-wigged Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell) begins life as Hansel, a beautiful girly-boy in East Berlin who meets an American soldier and falls in love. But in order to leave Berlin and escape to America, Hansel must endure a special operation, bringing him closer to womanhood. Unfortunately the doctors botch the procedure, leaving Hansel -- now Hedwig -- with nothing but an "angry inch."

Once in America the soldier abandons him, and Hedwig turns to rock 'n' roll for solace. She meets a young fan, Tommy (Michael Pitt), teaches him the ropes, falls in love with him, and re-names him Tommy Gnosis. Soon however, Tommy's hit the road and made a sensation of himself using Hedwig's original songs. We join Hedwig at the film's beginning, in the process of touring the country hot on Tommy's heels, playing whatever nearby venues she can get (including salad bars, coffee shops, and laundromats), and trying to get the word out that she's been ripped off.

Mitchell developed the film from his own Off-Broadway show, wrote the screenplay, directed, and stars as Hedwig, and it's one of the greatest, most audacious, tour-de-force movie debuts since Kenneth Branagh's Henry V (and, I have to admit, I'm thinking of Citizen Kane as well). Mitchell handles the camera like a pro, completely aware of pacing, use of space, and balance of energy. As Hedwig, he delivers an astonishing performance, funny, touching, and outrageous (he possesses a great, rich, rock 'n' roll voice). If nothing else, Mitchell deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

Mitchell also utilizes animation sequences to get his core theme across: the search for our "other half." (Except in Hedwig's case, she doesn't know if the other half is man or woman.) I'm making the film sound like a big ball of overkill, but the flashing colors, sounds, music, humor, and cartoons all congeal into a perfect, clear vision of passionate joy.

My original thought was that this amazing film could be destined to supplant The Rocky Horror Picture Show, as the king of midnight camp. But already Hedwig seems too good for that fate. It's a film people will want to take seriously, watch again and again, hoping for clues as to how to find their "other half." Others of us will watch it again and again, hoping for the same rush -- the same tingle -- we got the first time.

In 2019, the Criterion Collection released a deluxe Blu-ray edition, with their usual superb picture and sound (the music crackles). It includes a 2001 commentary track by Mitchell and DP Frank G. DeMarco, a new cast and crew reunion (56 mins.), a conversation between composer and lyricist Stephen Trask and rock critic David Fricke about the music (29 mins.), a making-of documentary from 2003 (85 mins.), several short selections from Mitchell's archives, an "Anatomy of a Scene" episode, deleted scenes with optional commentary (12 mins.), and a trailer. The thick liner notes booklet contains an essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek, illustrations, and other goodies.

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