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Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2002

Going all the way over the wall

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Rating: * * * *
Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Running time: 92 minutes
Now showing

Movies don't normally lay out their themes before the plot kicks in, but in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," John Cameron Mitchell's movie adaptation of his off-Broadway musical, the theme is presented clearly in the opening song, "Tear Me Down," which compares the main character to the Berlin Wall, the film's overarching metaphor.

"Reviled, graffitied, spit upon," declaims Yitzhak (Miriam Shor), backup singer of the Angry Inch, as he introduces the band's transsexual lead vocalist. "Hedwig is like that Wall, standing before you in the divide between East and West, slavery and freedom, man and woman, top and bottom . . ."

The band is touring a chain of family restaurants called Bilgewater's in the American heartland in pursuit of Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), Hedwig's former lover who stole her best songs and went platinum with them. This story is the "opening up" of the stage production, which was presented as a rock concert. The film's action is grounded in hotel rooms and shopping malls, but the real story is in the flashbacks.

Hedwig (Mitchell) was born Hansel in Berlin to an American G.I. and a German mother, who left the soldier and "escaped in the opposite direction." Hansel's childhood in a cramped East Berlin apartment is spent listening to the American Top 40 on Armed Forces Radio with his head in the oven (the only place he could listen undisturbed).

Hansel longs for the freedom he hears in Western pop, and, in a brilliantly conceived sequence, he finds a means of escape. A lascivious American sergeant spies Hansel over the Wall sunning himself. "I can't believe you're not a girl," the sergeant purrs, and the next day leaves a trail of Gummy Bears to his own sunning form. The seduction complete, the sergeant agrees to marry young Hansel, but the army requires a physical. "To walk away, you've got to leave something behind," he says. His mother knows just the surgeon.

"When I woke up from the operation, I was bleeding down there," he later tells a Bilgewater's crowd. "That's right, my first day as a woman and already it's my time of the month." No penis, no vagina, just "a one-inch mound of flesh with a scar running down it like a sideways grimace."

And that isn't even the joke. A year later, Hansel-now-Hedwig's sergeant leaves her for a new boy toy on the same day that the Berlin Wall comes down. Now you can laugh.

Rock's relationship to sexual ambiguity is as old as Little Richard's mascara, but as a cinematic subject it has so far been treated as burlesque ("The Rocky Horror Picture Show") or exploited as arty indulgence ("Velvet Goldmine"). Mitchell's themes are more formidable, and he makes rock serve these themes rather than the other way around.

It helps that the songs are good. Written by Stephen Trask, they channel the full spectrum of '70s hard rock, from arena anthems to punk. Mitchell wears his rocker persona as part parody, part true believer. As with all great trannie rock singers, from Wayne County to Miss Guy, Hedwig's delivery is more macho than Muddy Waters', while her couture goes beyond feminine to the ultra-kitsch. This idea is explicated with brio in the Queen-like production number "Wig in a Box." Hedwig, with the help of a hairpiece, can forget her daily miseries and turn into "Miss Farrah Fawcett on TV." As the number finishes, the side of her trailer home falls outward and turns into a stage, from which the newly bewigged Hedwig blasts out a perfect Slade-like coda.

"Hedwig" is a rush, but its emotional reach is sometimes limited by its allegorical purposes. The central song, "The Origin of Love," is allegorical to a fault. According to the creation myth advanced in the song, the earth was once inhabited by creatures with two sets of arms and legs and "two faces peering out of one giant head." Zeus sent lightning bolts down and split them all in two, so now humans spend their lives in search of their other halves. Making love, in other words, is an attempt "to shove ourselves back together."

Mitchell puts this metaphor to good use with one of the most pathetic sexual relationships imaginable. Following the departure of her sergeant, Hedwig survives on baby-sitting gigs "and the jobs we call blow," all the while cultivating her latent musical talent. She attracts Tommy Speck, an officer's teenage son who is into Jesus and schlock rock. They fall in love, and later Hedwig forces him to acknowledge "the front of me." "What is that?" he says, staring down at her crotch in shock. "It's what I have to work with," she answers sadly.

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