Who knows exactly why, but there's something thrilling about rock 'n' roll that involves cross-dressing. Perhaps it's because rock 'n' roll is all about adopting a persona or a stance anyway -- why not try on the other gender while you're at it, see what it feels like? Smearing lines across the sexes has been a feature of rock since its beginnings. It goes back at least as far as Little Richard's poet blouses and eyeliner, but it's a passion flower that dug its roots in deep in the '70s with the likes of the New York Dolls, Lou Reed, David Bowie and Patti Smith.
Suddenly, the multiplied permutations of possible identities were blissfully freeing: A man could look like a woman but sing like a man; a woman could look like a man and sing like one, too. And anyone could look good in a dress -- depending on what form of "good" you were after.
John Cameron Mitchell's off-Broadway musical, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," co-written with Stephen Trask and now a movie written by, directed by and starring Mitchell, runs on that '70s juice, even though it feels equal parts modern and nostalgic. The story of a tortured rock star who was born a man but who performs as a woman after a botched sex-change operation, "Hedwig" is only partly a meditation on one man/woman's search for identity; assigning too much depth to the movie's themes is a mistake. More important, it's that rarest of creatures: a rock musical that actually works.
Mitchell originated the role of Hedwig onstage in New York, in a show that was a favorite with audiences, and rightly so: It buzzed with the feel of real rock 'n' roll, instead of simply treating rock as currency, a gimmick to plant younger fannies in theater seats, as the alleged rock musical "Rent" did. Rock musicals -- I'd stretch the category to include rock operas, and yes, that includes even the Who's revered "Tommy" -- are almost always a bad idea. Maybe rock 'n' roll just defies being wedged into traditional narrative formats. There's something blessedly inconsequential about a 3- or 4-minute rock song, and it's that very quality of fleetingness that allows one song to contain a whole world of feeling.
Strung together in the service of a story, such songs lose their power more often than not, and work at odds with any narrative drive rather than propelling it along. That may be why the Who's seven-minute mini-opera "A Quick One, While He's Away," about a lonely housewife who has an affair with an engine driver, is so much more effective than the bloated "Tommy." It's a fat suitcase packed tight with worldly themes, including infidelity, remorse and forgiveness. Its intensity and humor hit like a firecracker; there's no bloat, no grandiose padding to make the story feel bigger than it really is, which results in making it feel big enough on its own.
"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" grooves on a similar principle. It's largely about spectacle; the story unfolds in the background, and while the songs support and enrich it, they're not planted sternly like giant signposts to its meaning. Hedwig, a transplant from the tragically divided city of Berlin, is divided himself: As he travels the States with his band, playing a string of Red Lobster-type restaurants to audiences rendered incredulous by his boyish brand of girl glam, he reveals his story in flashbacks between musical numbers.
His most recent heartbreak involves his affair with a rock superstar named Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), who has catapulted to success on the basis of songs that were actually co-written by Hedwig. Hedwig is in the process of suing Gnosis: With the help of his manager, Phyliss (played wonderfully by Andrea Martin, who's like a tart and tarty den mother), he's in the process of a messy lawsuit to get credit (and royalties) for the songs.
But Hedwig's real troubles start much earlier, when, as Hansel, a teenager in Berlin, he falls in love with a seductive hunk of meat masquerading as an American serviceman (Maurice Dean Wint). The G.I. claims to love him and wants to marry him, but in order to get a marriage license, Hedwig would have to undergo a physical exam. His mother helpfully suggests a sex change, and even knows just the doctor to do it. But the operation goes awry, leaving a sewn-up gash and a stump of flesh ("the angry inch") where Hedwig's penis -- or was it his identity? -- used to be. As he explains in one of his songs, his major feature has been reduced to a sorry mound with "a scar running down it like a sideways grimace on an eyeless face."
Hedwig becomes consumed with finding the other half of his innermost self -- the part of himself that has somehow gone missing or, worse, has been stolen. His existential angst is a suitable excuse on which to hang songs, and it's also a rich playground for both Hedwig as a performer and Mitchell as an actor. Mitchell's Hedwig, with his bitten-fruit lips, assortment of glamorous stripper wigs and wardrobe of trashy-fishnet finery, earns both our sympathy and our frustration as he muddles his way through his identity crisis. We see him hurting the people around him, like the biker-masculine Yitzhak, his bandmate and lover (played with the right mix of poignance and humor by Miriam Shor), who harbors a secret desire to be Hedwig.
Mitchell plays all the stock angles of femininity that every drag queen worth his salt has to: He's pouty, petulant and possessive, always the diva. But he also lets us behind the false eyelashes. There's a massive shot of theatricality in his über-feminine Hedwig -- he's scoldingly funny when he bitches out a bandmate for throwing one of his bras in the dryer -- but his fragility pulses beneath the surface in waves. You feel something for him even when, at his invitation, you're laughing at him.
The movie is a bit jerkily paced in places. But Mitchell has managed to make a movie that captures the essence of the stage show even as it stands comfortably on its own. (It also benefits from some superb animation sequences by Emily Hubley, daughter of famed experimental animators John and Faith Hubley.) The story's conclusion isn't as cut and dried (if you'll pardon the pun) as some viewers might like it to be; its intentional ambiguity might seem like a copout if you're looking for a bigger payoff.
But if you can accept that Hedwig simply finds a way to live with himself, "Hedwig" makes as much sense as it has to. The music -- written by Trask -- and the way Hedwig performs it are the sexual and sensual backbone of the picture. There's not much gloriousness in the movies these days -- not many moments that deliver true spectacle, that make you realize you've stopped breathing for a few seconds. I had a few of those moments in "Hedwig," all of them during musical numbers.
"Hedwig" is aggressively, winkingly glam. It helps to have a taste for T. Rex, Iggy and the like, but you should feel free to check reverence at the door: Trask's songs are enjoyable as both sendup and tribute. Sometimes their drama is almost inextricable from their knowing sensibility, as in the ballad "The Origin of Love," where Mitchell's "Velvet Goldmine" crooning explains how men and women became divided from a single being in the first place. It's a little corny, but it still sounds damn good. And the sight of Hedwig and his band transforming a trashy trailer into a glitter-rock stage during "Wig in a Box" was so exhilarating I almost leapt out of my seat. The movie is pure theater, as it should be.
Lester Bangs once described the experience of seeing Elvis Presley in person as having an erection of the heart. High on its own pulpy, sleazy glamour, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" is nowhere near Elvis caliber. It's just not that kind of art -- its alert self-awareness and twinkling self-mockery are too high. But it does capture one angle of Bangs' meaning. You can be hard in a dress, or soft in a pair of leather trousers. The blood flows to every extremity from one source: How fast it beats determines how hard it rocks, whether you're working with 1 inch or 6.