Rage to live

Gender takes a walk on the wild side in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

“My sex-change operation got botched/my guardian angel fell asleep on the watch,” sings Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell) in a raucous yet oddly poetic expression of personal outrage, “now all I’ve got is a Barbie-doll crotch/I’ve got an angry inch!” This signature song encapsulates the particular tone of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, an intoxicating combination of irreverent humor and serious emotional commitment.

“What is that?” asks Hedwig’s shocked teenage protégé, Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), when faced with the aforementioned inch. “It’s what I have to work with,” comes the reply. And work it Hedwig does.

Trapped somewhere between genders, the former Hans has become the flamboyant Hedwig, adopting a brash rock persona which exudes powerful femininity with a masculine undertone (imagine Tina Turner as a slim white boy). Citing the androgynous triumvirate of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed as role models, Hedwig’s loud, brash sound fuses glam and punk, but as part of his/her embrace of opposites, there’s a perpetual vulnerability on display, a pain beneath the rage. (Hedwig’s female influences: Toni Tennille, Debbie Boone and Anne Murray.)

This is an amazing juggling act, which Mitchell does remarkably well. Not only has he adapted his Obie-winning stage musical, but he makes his directorial debut with Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and displays a flair for the dramatic which would make his alter ego proud.

The film follows Hedwig’s band as it follows the Gnosis stadium tour. (Not only has the impressionable teen who asked Hedwig to be Eve to his Adam morphed into a Christian goth megastar, but he used his former mentor’s songs to get there.) Along the way, Hedwig recalls the key events of a life marked by bizarre circumstances and bad decisions, including a glum, repressive East Berlin childhood, and the American GI who suggests the sex change — and marriage — as a means of escape.

“Sugar Daddy,” with its catchy country lilt, superbly summarizes this situation (“the thrill of control ... it’s the sweetest taste I know”). The marvelous set piece, “Wig in a Box,” which chronicles Hedwig’s subsequent Midwest isolation, is a testament to the skills of composer Stephen Trask, who rewrote an already impressive set of songs for the film (he’s also The Angry Inch’s guitar player and performs Tommy Gnosis’ vocals).

If the music sucked, Hedwig and the Angry Inch wouldn’t work, but what Trask and Mitchell have achieved is no less than the distillation of a life into song. If there’s any justice, “Wicked Little Town” will be a subversive summer radio hit, three minutes of transcendent freedom amid the glut of corporate sameness. Success would be Hedwig’s ultimate revenge.

Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.

Read our interview with ex-Detroiter and male impersonator Miriam Shor, one of the gender-bending stars of the film.

Visit the official movie Web site at hedwigmovie.com.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].