It is a drizzly day in the countryside, and on the periphery of a Lilith Fair-like music festival, just downwind from the Port-a-Potties, a band wearing embarrassingly spangled rock-star gear stands on a small stage. They play to an audience of one, a gawky little Goth who is absolutely entranced by what she sees. There's little point in actually attempting to play a song—the band can scarcely be heard over the politically correct warbling emanating from the main stage—so the band's singer has instead decided to tell the Goth kid the story of her life. With a weary smile, she sits down on the stage and motions the kid to come up and sit beside her. The singer and her fan sit side by side, but as the singer speaks, she never puts down the microphone. After all, this intimate conversation is still a performance.
There is a touch of This Is Spinal Tap in John Cameron Mitchell's directorial debut, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, as well as more than a pinch of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and sprinkles of musicals ranging from The Wizard of Oz to Sid and Nancy. But despite all its campy pop appropriation, Hedwig is something new. Many films have featured glamorous, rock & roll drag queens, but Hedwig takes us deep inside the soul of one, and it sure as hell ain't all glitter and feather boas in there.
As portrayed by Mitchell (who wrote the screenplay, stars, directs and belts out blistering rock tunes while wearing wigs that would embarrass the B-52's), Hedwig is a creature of contradictions, simultaneously wise and petty, seductive and repulsive. A botched sex-change operation has left her stranded between genders, but in some ways, that's the least of her troubles. The love of her life split long ago, and since then, he's used the songs he co-wrote with Hedwig to transform himself into rock & roll superstar Tommy Gnosis. Hedwig's suing for her share of the royalties, and in the meantime, she and her ragtag band are touring the country in Tommy's wake, performing for bemused customers in chain restaurants typically located next door to the arenas in which Tommy is wowing the crowds. The film is both grimly naturalistic and grandly over the top, featuring scenes of gutter-faced squalor and animation so lovely it brings a tear to the eye. But while we happily indulge Hedwig's streak of whimsy, the idea that this amazingly good rock band is stuck playing chain restaurants pushes far beyond the bounds of credibility.
Life, Macbeth famously groused, is a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. During her hour or two upon the stage, Hedwig does much strutting and fretting, and she's certainly full of sound and fury. But she's no idiot, and her tale ends up signifying a great deal. As we listen to her, we often feel just like that Goth kid at Hedwig's ill-fated outdoor show. It's as if we're sitting onstage with her, hanging on every word as she speaks just to us. It's an intimate experience, but Hedwig never puts down the mic, and we're grateful for that; by doing so, she stays a star in our eyes—even as she comes to seem like a friend.
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Hedwig and the Angry Inch was written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell; produced by Pamela Koffler, Katie Roumel and Christine Vachon; and stars Mitchell, Michael Pitt and Miriam Shor. Now playing at Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana.