The movie musical is back with a vengeance, and -- lucky for us -- it looks and sounds little like "Xanadu." The 2001 Sundance Film Festival introduced Cory McAbee's genius work of melody and mirth, "The American Astronaut," which proceeded to the Florida Film Festival and an impending national release. But the real talk (or should that be "hum?") of Sundance was "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," writer/director/star John Cameron Mitchell's big-screen adaptation of his hit off-Broadway revue.
The virtues that won "Hedwig" the festival's Dramatic Audience Award and Mitchell its Dramatic Directing Award are readily apparent from the first moments of this loud, colorful and affecting film. It's a jubilant rave-up that revives and improves upon "The Rocky Horror Show"/"Bat Out of Hell" epoch of mid-1970s rock, in which Tin Pan Alley songcraft was fused to kinky, Bowie-ignited bombast.
Frank N. Furter impersonators take heed: "Hedwig's" infectious score outpaces even "Rocky's." As showcased in numbers like "Tear Me Down" and "The Origin of Love," the music and lyrics of Stephen Trask are a tailor-made platform for Mitchell's compelling portrayal of Hedwig Schmidt, a struggling rocker whose Farrah-femme costumery and defiant postures mask the pain of a botched sex-change operation. (The apparent nod to glam also-ran Wayne/Jayne County ends with the distinctions that Hedwig has a killer repertoire and can actually sing.) Born an East German boy named Hansel, our hero(ine) goes under the knife to preserve his love affair with an American G.I. (Maurice Dean Wint). He emerges less than a full woman, retaining an "angry inch" of a stump that becomes the source of a perpetual identity crisis -- and provides the name of the backup band the now-jilted Hedwig forms when fate leads her to America and onto the concert stage.
The national tour that is the film's framing device hits one Z-list dive after another, where the primary onstage amenity is the band's proximity to a salad bar. The big arenas are the province of Hedwig's ex-beau, a vacant, leather-trousered rocker named Tommy Gnosis who has stolen Hedwig's entire song bank and ridden it to the top of the charts. That's the thanks Hedwig gets for having emancipated Tommy from his conservative Christian upbringing and steady diet of Boston records. (Legal issues, one presumes, are the only reason the character is named "Tommy Gnosis" and not "Scott Stapp.")
The film's sparse plot dwells mostly on the embittered Hedwig's stalking of Tommy. As with most theater-into-cinema translations, narrative momentum is at a minimum. The Hansel/Hedwig backstory is told in flashback fantasy sequences that recall the glittery myth-making of "Velvet Goldmine." (Mitchell and "Goldmine" writer/director Todd Haynes are close friends who were intimately privy to each other's works-in-progress.) But "Hedwig's" here and now consists almost entirely of backstage bitch sessions and musical numbers.
Performed live as the cameras rolled, those song sequences pack more dramatic punch than most straight (pardon the expression) features. Mitchell has presence to burn as he thrusts his body into the breach and fixes us with knowing gazes that can be winsome and accusatory at the same moment. It's one of the film's best jokes that success has come to the blank Tommy and not to Hedwig, who obviously comprehends the full import of every syllable she's singing. She's simply too cognizant to pass for a pop star in the current brain-dead era. But her emergence as an instant movie star is as plain as the wig on her head.