Hedwig And The Angry Inch

Hedwig And The Angry Inch (2001)
New Line Home Entertainment
Cast: John Cameron Mitchell, Miriam Shor, Andrea Martin, Maurice Dean Wint
Extras: Commentary Track, Documentary, Theatrical Trailer, Deleted scenes, Select-a-Song, Cast & Crew Filmographies and more

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch, " a flamboyant, touching rock musical in the vein of "The Rocky Horror Show," is the brainchild of actor/writer John Cameron Mitchell. What started as an improv character became an off-Broadway hit, eventually migrating to the silver screen last summer. Now, New Line Home Entertainment completes "Hedwig’s" media transformation with a stellar, feature-packed DVD under their "Platinum Edition" banner. There’s much to like about Hedwig and his/her melodic journey from the Iron Curtain to a Kansas trailer. Full enjoyment only requires letting go of a few pre-conceptions about gender, genre and what makes a good person.

Within the first five minutes, Mitchell economically dramatizes the reality of Hedwig’s success: playing the Midwest salad bar circuit at the St. Louis location of Bilgewater’s, a pseudo-Denny’s restaurant chain. From there, the viewer undertakes a voyage of discovery as Hedwig reveals how she was once Hansel, a boy growing under the shadow of a stern mother (Alberta Watson) and Stalinism. Hansel found solace in "the American Masters:" Toni Tennille, Debby Boone and Anne Murray. (Hedwig admits that Murray is "actually a Canadian working in the American idiom.") His dreary existence changes when a chance encounter with Luther, an American serviceman (Maurice Dean Wint), gives Hansel a "sugar daddy" to slake his sugary thirst for all things Americana. When Luther convinces Hansel to come back to America with him, Hansel eagerly agrees, not realizing the only person Luther can bring back is a bride. Desperate to escape his life and even his sexuality, Hansel happily undergoes a sex change operation…until he discovers that the surgeon botched the procedure, leaving an inch-long reminder of the bygone days.

When Luther abandons her, Hedwig takes stock of the situation and forms a band: Hedwig and the Angry Inch. With Farrah Fawcett flip curls, frosted eye shadow and more sequins than a Liberace reunion, Hedwig and her ragtag group entertain amid salad bar refills and perplexed diners’ glances. In addition to regurgitating her tumultuous journey, she also details her infatuation/obsession with Tommy Gnosis, a mega-successful rock star figuring prominently in Hedwig’s past. Alternating between spiritual awakening and dozing off, Hedwig entreats and cajoles her audience, all the while masking a great void about her place in the universe and a never ending quest to "find her other half."

The film only runs ninety minutes, but you will not find a faster, sharper, funnier hour and a half anywhere. I had a chance to see "Hedwig" on stage last year and while I thought that experience was an absolute blast, committing it to celluloid allowed Mitchell to visualize what he could only describe in the play. We see Hansel’s grim disposition give away to elation when listening to American rock music in the only place his mother will let him listen to it…inside the kitchen oven. (Yes, there are vast streaks of black humor throughout the story.) Mitchell as Hedwig runs the gamut from temperamental diva to stricken soul mate to raunchy chanteuse with double entendres that would make Mae West blush ("When I think of all the people I have come upon in my travels, I have to think of all the people who have come upon me"). Yet, Hedwig endears as much as anyone searching to find their place in the world and the scenes where Hedwig and Tommy Gnosis build their relationship have a genuine sweetness.

The film also has energy, bundles of it. Mitchell keeps the narrative flow and thematic imagery (mirror reflections, animated cleft stick figures) well balanced and knows when to push the pace full throttle, especially during the musical numbers. Composed (both music and lyrics) by Stephen Trask (who plays the Angry Inch’s lead guitarist), the songs are a out-and-out hoot, melodically charting such rocky terrain in Hedwig’s life as her dependence on Luther and materialism ("Sugar Daddy"), facing small minds and foolish prejudices ("Wicked Little Town"), overcoming her self-loathing ("Wig in a Box," which I consider the catchiest tune in the film) and a lyric ode to her physical plight ("I’ve Got an Angry Inch.") Cameron was recently nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance in "Hedwig" and he certainly gets my vote!

In addition to a sparkling transfer, energetic 5.1 <$DD,Dolby Digital> and <$DTS,DTS> tracks (on the same disc…yeah!), the special edition boasts commentary by Mitchell and cinematographer Michael DeFranco, an enjoyable feature-length, behind the scenes documentary, the theatrical trailer, deleted scenes with optional commentary by Mitchell and direct access to the songs with subtitle accompaniment.

The 1.85 <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer could not look better. DeFranco’s color palette leans heavily on reds and pinks, replicating both without any smearing or bleed. The lighting gets a little lurid, but even at reduced levels, details like the sheen in Hedwig’s lipstick (it’s thick!) and Yitzhak’s beard stubble (Yitzhak is Hedwig’s "Man Friday…through Thursday," played by Miriam Shor, a holdover from the stage version) come through clean and sharp. Flesh tones come through nice and natural, even when they have to work harder to break past the bizarre lighting and color schemes. The source print is immaculate (expected for a brand new film, but still welcome) and even with the rough edged look, film grain appears minimally. The digital compression exhibits no artifacts; just a smooth, stable picture.

The DVD offers three options for the audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1 and matrix stereo surround. For the most part, the only times the entire soundfield engages are during the numbers. A few scenes contain some surround envelopment with traffic noises, or a new-age alarm clock. During the songs, crank the volume to 11! The Dolby Digital and DTS encoding come in virtually neck and neck regarding overall fidelity and aural presence. Switching between the two, both are enjoyable with exceptional headroom, crystal clarity during those high frequency guitar plucks and kick-butt LFE punctuations. Coming in at the 754-megabit rate, the DTS track gets a slight (we’re talking teensy-weensy here) nod during the guitar solos. (For the record, I always prefer both DD and DTS tracks on the same disc. Whether I listen to one or the other, the whole point with the format’s storage capacity is giving consumers as many choices as possible. OK, the soapbox moment has passed. ) While it carries some oomph, the two-channel stereo literally withers in comparison to the discrete multi-channel soundtracks.

The commentary by Mitchell and DeFranco runs the length of the film. Both contribute equally in talking about the difficulties of low-budget filmmaking, location headaches (the Bilgewater scenes were shot at a pizza restaurant instead of a Red Lobster, which they originally wanted), lighting challenges and camera set-ups. Soft spoken and occasionally humorous, Mitchell’s subdued demeanor is a complete about-face from the manic Hedwig and in many ways after listening to him amble on about such details as how fast should end credits scroll (never really thought about that one) or juggling the numerous animation inserts with the live action, I admired Mitchell all the more for the transformation.

Basically the "behind the scenes" extra, "Whether You Like It or Not: The Story of Hedwig" thoroughly documents the making of the phenomenon as well as the film. Featuring interviews with Mitchell, Trask, Shor, Mitchell’s parents, DeFranco, Mike Potter, who created Hedwig’s physical look, as well as the fans who saw "Hedwig" over and over and over again in New York (one claimed to have seen the play 425 times!). Producer/director Laura Nix leaves nothing uncovered during the 85 minute running time, almost the length of the film itself. From the creation of the character to composing the songs to hearing what Mitchell’s parents think about their son’s success, Nix does what very few DVD documentaries accomplish: find the right tone to match the subject material. What starts off as cinema verite irreverence (the first few minutes is a dizzying montage of Mitchell doing publicity for the theatrical release) settles into a focused, almost exhaustive examination of how something fictional takes on a life of its own.

The deleted scenes section really only offers two selections with optional commentary by Mitchell. One entitled "Alternate/Deleted Sequence" runs almost eleven minutes and correlates to the final cut around the start of Chapter 15. We see more of Andrea Martin, who plays Phyllis, Hedwig’s long-suffering agent as well as some back-story on Hedwig and Yitzhak (they first met at a Barbra Streisand impersonation contest in Croatia!). The other clip, "Bedroom Boogie" shows two takes of Hansel dancing on his mother’s bed. Mitchell explains how the usual culprits (pacing, redundancy) affected how the material was ultimately left out.

The "Select a Song" option propels the viewer directly to the listed title, along with automatically engaging the subtitles. I highly recommend leaving the subtitles on for full enjoyment of Trask’s hysterical lyrics like "My sex change operation got botched / my guardian angel fell asleep at the watch / Now all I’ve got is a Barbie doll crotch / I’ve got an Angry Inch."

A theatrical trailer, presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and 5.1 sound (Dolby Digital only), and cast/crew filmographies round out the DVD-Video features.

I have had the good fortune to follow "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" from stage to screen to video. Thanks to New Line and John Cameron Mitchell, "Hedwig" will be around for a long time. A better time in your home theater will not be had!