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Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Walls, bridges and blasphemy
by Mark Anderson

Some loudmouth, seeking attention and plied with drink at a late-night party in Portland last month, blurted out a ridiculous-sounding blasphemy:

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is a better movie than “Rocky Horror Picture Show” or
“Spinal Tap.”

Ladies and gentlemen, whether you like it or not: Hedwig is here to stay.

Hedwig is a German-born on-the-skids rocker with lightning-in-a-bottle charm. One angry inch is what remains of Hedwig's manhood after a botched sex-change operation. "The Angry Inch" is the name of Hedwig's razor-sharp, hard-rocking band.

Hedwig's young protégé, Tommy Gnosis, swipes the songs and ends up Artist of the Year on the cover of Rolling Stone.

The loudmouth was me.

Do I still believe? I do. John Cameron Mitchell, who wrote and directed, is clearly born to be Hedwig. The supporting actors are equally fine. The edgy, plot-carrying songs are buoyed by Bob Mould's feisty guitar – the best of the bunch cross David Bowie with Chrissie Hynde and Hüsker Dü; there's hard rock, rockabilly, ballads and pure pop, too. Animation sequences add depth and historical significance to the story's Cold War climate. And the imaginative, flashback-laden story is colorful, bold and very, very funny.

Measuring stick: six inches forward, five inches back.

But apart from the movie's considerable virtues as popular entertainment is an examination that strikes at the heart and soul of humanity: the yin and yang of gender and sex. More or less, the movie strongly suggests, we're all made from different degrees of the same damn stuff – now let's just get on with it.

The story itself is a bit complicated, but that's part of the fun.

Hedwig, born a little boy named Hansel in 1961, grows up under the long shadow of the wrong side of the Berlin Wall. The boy is abused by his American G.I. father, earns his rock 'n' roll stripes listening to Armed Forces Radio, falls in love with a black American soldier and, in order to marry – and thus escape to the West – suffers the ill-fated surgery. Hedwig's mother approves of the marriage, even recommends the surgeon.

That's when the real complications begin.

The newlyweds move to Kansas, Hedwig turns housewife, hubby runs off with another young boy. Hedwig survives a trailer-park existence on babysitting gigs at the military base and befriends naive-but-earnest Tommy. They fall in love, but Tommy can't get beyond that angry damn inch.

Eventually, separate ways they go. Both form bands. Tommy becomes an arena-sized superstar, Hedwig follows Tommy's tour, city by city. Tommy plays Hedwig's songs for thousands of fans, Hedwig does a far more convincing job with the same songs – down the block at a fast-food chain in front of sparse but loyal fans and unsuspecting dinner crowds.

But true and righteous dignity is something that Hedwig, through it all, never loses – no matter if the rest of the world notices or not. And just like we were never really certain the Berlin Wall would come down until it actually did, by the time 1988 rolls around, Hedwig is primed for a little liberation.

All the while, love, rejection, perseverance and self-actualization get deconstructed, examined and put back together in brave new ways.

At the end of the day, we're brought to see, walls and bridges aren't so different. Both, in fact, serve to point out much of the world's most fascinating real estate.

Original Cast: "Hedwig" got off to a good start in 1997 – winning the Drama Desk award for Best Off-Broadway Musical.

The perfect movie? Hardly. Some songs are less than first rate, a few go on a little too long. And the ending, a little less than satisfying, almost seems to telegraph "Hedwig Part II." But then, "Rocky Horror" and "Spinal Tap" ain't perfect, either.

"Hedwig," as award-winning Off-Broadway play, came to life in the mid-90s. The movie, a July release, won the People's Award and Best Director at Sundance, along with a handful of similar such hardware around the globe; people are starting to know it's out there. Ready or not, world, Hedwig is here for the long haul.

All of which brings to mind some advice my doctor-friend got from his mother half a lifetime ago.

He and I were fresh out of college, roommates in a tough inner-city apartment. That he was born to be a distinguished doctor was obvious, though proving it to the rest of the world would take many more years; his first real-world step toward medical school was as busboy at a popular restaurant. And his mother – herself a doctor and in town for a visit – insisted on stopping by to see her son, busy at his humbling but hectic new job. That night he came home hopping mad.

"She told me," he seethed, "that you bring your own dignity to wherever you are in life."

What made him mad, of course, is that she was right.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and visit prior editions of tripewriter.

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