- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 4, 2001

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" stirs a nostalgic longing to have Johnny Carson revive his "Karnak the Magnificent" act every so often, to take advantage of all the new movie titles that lend themselves to deserving ridicule.
A fringe attraction, derived from a successfully outrageous yet lovelorn theater piece that began in a drag club in New York City and graduated to an off-Broadway showcase, "Hedwig" is a rock musical that is to a great extent a one-man show for its author and headliner, John Cameron Mitchell.
The inspiration for "Hedwig" began when Mr. Mitchell was a military brat growing up in Berlin, where his father was an American officer during the Cold War. The real-life prototype for Hedwig was a baby sitter who doubled as a prostitute. Or vice versa.
Mr. Mitchell has formulated a flamboyant role for himself as a partly facetious and partly pathetic transvestite exile from Berlin. The transvestite was born Hansel to a wrong-way mum (Alberta Watson), who moves from West Berlin to East Berlin after the wall goes up. Hansel acquires a fondness for pop music played over Armed Forces Radio. In time, she becomes the teen-age conquest of a top kick named Luther (Maurice Dean Witt). Hansel is conned into a maladroit sex-change operation, which inspires the name "Angry Inch," which is borrowed for the name of the band.
Abandoned in the Midwest by the faithless Luther, Hansel assumes the Hedwig identity and struggles to sustain an embittered performing career. When we first see Hedwig, hopeful prospects seem long gone. The Inch is playing incongruous gigs in branches of the Bilgewater restaurant chain, where the clientele is more likely to be annoyed than overjoyed by the sound of house rockers. Given to self-mockery, Hedwig introduces herself as "the internationally ignored song stylist" and summarizes the band's idiom as "Eastern Bloc Rock."
She turns out to be nursing the pain from more than one "great betrayal" as an inspiration for torch songs. During the song interludes, mostly the work of Stephen Trask, who also appears as a band member, we discover that Hedwig has loved and lost a teen dreamboat, a lad named Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), who purloined Hedwig ballads on the way to superstardom. The sounds of huge Gnosis concerts waft into the Bilgewater franchises. At an open-air event, a so-called Menses Fair, the Inch attracts a solitary fan. Across the field and out of camera range, Gnosis entertains thousands at an adjacent stadium.
Some of the satirical sport at the expense of pop-music cliches and aspirations is aimed wittily. In fact, Hedwig is enough of a quipster to suggest that cable television would have discovered and showcased her well before a fluke, scandalous celebrity supposedly catches up with her. The songs also are calculated to clarify thematic and character points with a consistency that seems unusual for the genre. Transposing the small-scale show into a compact, no-frills movie version also seems astute. Admirers who desire a faithful adaptation will no doubt have it because Mr. Mitchell was recruited to direct himself in the title role.
For those without a keen interest in agonizing over sexual identity, "Hedwig" is likely to be an ordeal, short on momentum or novelty after an hour or so. A Platonic myth of estrangement has influenced Hedwig's odyssey. A song called "The Origin of Love" clarifies this preoccupation. Ostensibly, Hedwig is searching for the lover or soul mate who will complete her. Arguably, she has complicated the quest to an unfortunate degree by resorting to mutilation at the hands of an incompetent surgeon.

*-1/2
TITLE: "Hedwig and the Angry Inch"
RATING: R (occasional profanity and graphic violence; systematic sexual candor, with perverse sexuality and sexual masquerades as thematic preoccupations)
CREDITS: Written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, based on his own "work for the stage." Music and lyrics by Stephen Trask; cinematography by Frank G. DeMarco; production design by Therese DePrez; costume design by Arianne Phillips; hair and makeup by Mike Potter. A smattering of dialogue in German with English subtitles.
RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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