Hedwig and the Angry Inch on DVD
Academy Award nominations were announced the day I write this, and I was saddened to learn that writer-director-star John Cameron Mitchell, who plays Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, was not nominated for Best Actor. He gave one of those stimulating performances that make one wish one were a movie star.
Mitchell gives himself completely to Hansel (later Hedwig), a gay boy growing up in East Berlin. His mother and her burly would-be husband convince him to have a sex-change operation to get him over the Berlin Wall and into America. But, "to walk away," his American master-sergeant beau tells him, "you gotta leave something behind." The botched operation leaves Hansel, now Hedwig, half the man he used to be; Hedwig's now husband takes off with a young blond boy, and she's left high and dry in a trailer in Kansas. Looking to be loved in the aggregate despite her leftover angry inch, she falls in love with Tommy Speck (Michael Pitt), a handsome young "Jesus freak" with great musical potential. As Hedwig nurtures him into a bona-fide rock star (stage name: Tommy Gnossis), é la Billy Corgan, we experience her vulnerability as she gives him everything. She tells him, in one of the film's most poignant moments, that if he's going to love her, then "love the front of me, honey." Instead of fulfilling that request, Gnossis steals her songs, finds fame, and leaves her for greener pastures. Heartbroken, Hedwig and her band, The Angry Inch, stalk Gnossis as he tours, playing for peanuts for dismayed patrons in front of the fish tank and behind the salad bar at Bilgewater's Restaurant.
The glam-rock Angry Inch (their songs are by Mitchell and Stephen Trask) is totally crunchy and never lets the audience down—even if it's a lone, hirsute lesbian at the Menses Fair Women's Music Festival. The lyrics, interspersed with free-flowing animations, question what makes a person complete and explain the story of Hedwig's life and her quest to find that which will make her whole again. The finale, in which Hedwig throws off her wig and belts out the rock ballad "Midnight Radio," is truly inspired. Originally performed Off Broadway at the Jane Street Theatre, Hedwig rivals the very best rock operas and gives The Rocky Horror Picture Show a run for its money. Marked with humor and sincerity, and played from the heart, it is one of the best films I've seen this year.
Unlike your standard low-budget feature, Hedwig has gotten fair treatment on DVD. At first, when you see a lot of grain in the Berlin flashback scenes, you might think you're an observant videophile. But as Mitchell's director's commentary reveals, that effect was intentional. Overall, colors are spotty, at times appearing oversaturated, at others flat. But after all, the funding was limited, and the effect complements the sometimes seedy subject matter.
Even with Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS, and 2.0, the soundtrack is not remarkable during the scenes without music; there's not much activity in the surrounds, which are mostly reserved for ambient effects. However, during the epic musical numbers—especially on the DTS track—you'll notice a lot of deep bass, and Mitchell's powerful voice comes through the center with gnarly clarity.
The extras are fascinating, especially the 85-minute documentary, Whether You Like It or Not: The Story of Hedwig. It reveals all sorts of juicy background material and chronicles Mitchell's unconventional upbringing, which served as a starting point for the show, then the play, then the movie.
Most of the good stuff is covered in the documentary; the commentary track has a more matter-of-fact tone, as Mitchell and cinematographer Frank De Marco discuss the production of the film but not its inspiration. You can also access deleted scenes, isolated musical numbers, an Easter egg with stills from a deleted scene, filmographies, and the anamorphic trailer—all of which go further to show that Hedwig is an instant rock-opera cult classic that is not to be missed. It deserves permanent shelf space in your DVD library, if not a nod from Oscar. This movie is, in a word, rockin'.