Meet Hedwig, a transsexual East German rock star on a tour of the American Midwest’s tackiest chain-restaurants. Standing by the salad bar in forlorn eateries off the freeway, Hedwig regales open-mouthed punters with autobiographical ditties about “her” botched sex-change operation, the sugar-daddy sergeant she married in Berlin and her theory that human beings were just one sex until a vengeful god split them in two. For an encore, this “internationally ignored song stylist” launches into bitter attacks on the successful young rocker she claims has stolen all her best tunes. Some of the diners respond with polite, timid applause. Others try to beat her up.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the labour of love of John Cameron Mitchell (the film’s writer, director and star): it has been converted from its original incarnation as an off-Broadway stage show and makes the most of a thrift-shop budget. It’s a picture in candied fragments. The musical interludes unlock flashbacks from a Cold War childhood spent listening to Lou Reed and Stooges records on Armed Forces Radio. Later, we revisit Hedwig’s love affair with Tommy (Michael Pitt), a gauche Kansas City teen who strums guitar in the church band. Tommy, it transpires, will eventually play the role of Judas to her glam-rock messiah.
Like Hedwig, Mitchell’s film can be a noisy, attention-seeking tart at times. Like Hedwig, its uncompromising abandon soon wins you over. I liked this a lot. It’s the sort of stack-heeled walk on the wild side that Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine should have been and yet never quite was; a posturing film glamour that’s at once funny and sad, brash and sensitive. There’s real depth behind its painted facade.