The fact that less than a dozen people attended the official Boston press screening for "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" (IMDb listing) seems to forebode the box office fate of this off-Broadway hit turned motion picture. Despite rock-solid acting, spectacular costumes, and an electrifying sound track, "Hedwig" never manages the transition from stage to screen.
The complicated and touching story follows the journey of East-German-born Hansel (John Cameron Mitchell) who falls in love with an American G.I. and undergoes a sex-change operation to be able to marry his lover and forego his bleak existence behind the Berlin wall in favor of a trailer park in Junction City, Kansas. But the operation goes horribly wrong, leaving Hansel, now known as Hedwig, with an angry inch of genitalia. Once in Kansas, Hedwig's husband promptly leaves her for another man.
Soon thereafter, Hedwig meets Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), and falls in love with the teenager, only to be rejected when he finds out about her gender issues. Tommy runs off to become a rock star, releasing a hit album full of songs stolen from Hedwig that tell the story of her life. Embittered and enraged, Hedwig follows Tommy's concert tour with her own band, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, performing nationwide for often less than enthusiastic patrons at the Bilgewater restaurant chain. It is as much a crusade for truth and acceptance as it is a soul-searching journey for Hedwig. She needs to come to terms with her place in life in order to find what she wants most: The other half that will complete her, "whoever or whatever that may be."
The directorial debut of John Cameron Mitchell, who co-wrote the original play with score composer Stephen Trask and also wrote the screenplay, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" is critically acclaimed, winning among others the Audience Award and Best Director Award at Sundance 2001.
And much of the praise is well deserved. Many of the acting performances are extraordinary and captivating, particularly Mitchell as Hansel/Hedwig, Alberta Watson (of "Spanking the Monkey" and "La Femme Nikita" fame) as Hansel's mother, and Miriam Shor as Yitzhak, a role Shor originated on the stage.
But these performances get lost in a movie that relies too heavily on its soundtrack. Never mind that the soundtrack itself is amazing and most of the songs have that stuck-in-your-head-all-day quality to them. It is the soundtrack that tells the real story, as it should in a good rock musical, but the bits of acting and animation thrown into the movie, while often entertaining, make the complex storyline hard to follow, at times losing it altogether.
"Hedwig and the Angry Inch," by its nature not bound to be a mainstream crowd pleaser, is likely to appeal to die-hard fans of the play, but even for the independent film connoisseur with an appreciation for a movie with substance, this one will be a challenge.
Filmfodder Grade: C