'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' measures up perfectly

by Kelly Swartz | 1/9/02 6:00am

The movie opens with the depressing flicker of a neon sign outside of the Kansas City, Kan., location of the fictional nationwide restaurant chain, Bilgewater's (think Big Boy meets Applebys), where Hedwig and his band, The Angry Inch, are beginning their American tour.

Once inside things instantly explode, and the sugary voice and screen presence of John Cameron Mitchell in drag as his transsexual main character, Hedwig, captivate a stunned audience of diners.

"Are you ready, Kansas City! It's the new Berlin Wall. Try to tear me down!" he proclaims.

So starts Mitchell's poignant film, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," which will appear tonight in Spaulding Auditorium.

Written by, directed by and starring Mitchell himself, "Hedwig" is a deceivingly upbeat saga of lost love and thwarted success, powered by a combination of forceful visuals and sounds throughout the movie.

Adapted from the popular off-Broadway musical of the same name, "Hedwig" is a film that fails to conform to previously established genres, combining aspects of sarcasm and dark humor, love-founded drama and a rock musical score with an energy and emotion that rivals and surpasses that of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

Although Mitchell's film has not yet amassed thousands of crazed followers like "Rocky Horror," Hedwig acquires his own loyal band of groupies within the film; diehard fans don cardboard wigs and listenintently to his story.

The movie unrolls as a series of murky flashbacks to Hedwig's childhood and escape from East Berlin, interwoven with more vibrant, present-day experiences. As a young boy Hedwig (named Hansel at birth) dreams of America, rock and roll and the finding of his "second half."

After suffering a botched sex-change operation, Hansel changes his name to Hedwig and runs away with his boyfriend to America, where he finds himself to be half a woman and abandoned thigh-deep in the Kansas prairie.

Hedwig's next real attempt at love and human contact results again in abandonment when his "Jesus-loving" rock protg, Tommy Gnosis, runs off with her heart and original songs to become famous.

Lonely and without an identity or songs to call his own, Hedwig resorts to stalking the former lover on his cross-country tour.

The film utilizes snippets of animation and music through which Hedwig recounts his story. In glittering make-up he is a modern day, glam-rock Marlene Dietrich leaving a trail of panties and mascara across the Midwest.

As the film unravels, Hedwig slowly retires the over-the-top wig and face paints and becomes even more feminine, human and vulnerable. He is disfigured without being repulsive and sexual without being pornographic.

Yet near the end of the film, the balance is jarred, and Hedwig must assume his real identity, whether one gender or a combination of both. Frantic and frustrated, he stumbles around the shards of his past and attempts to come to grips with life, love and identity.

An overpowering amount of symbolism, especially late in the film, threatens to push it over the edge. The idea of "two halves becoming one" reoccurs so frequently that viewers may feel Mitchell offends their ability to yield deeper interpretation. However, this is only a minor error in an otherwise flawless movie.

Obviously Mitchell's elegant portrayal of femininity may offend certain audiences. His ability to transform himself into a woman through actions and not just stage make-up is commendably uncanny.

On the surface, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" might be taken as an interesting and fun hour-and-a-half sing along, or worse yet, the next "Rocky Horror Picture Show."

But this film is not for the weak-hearted.

Mitchell questions traditional dichotomies -- such as the division and bond between man and woman, East and West, and Europe and America -- to prove that this is not some fun, feel-good flick. "Hedwig" aims not just to amuse, yet still manages to avoid slopping some soupy message about life to viewers.