Hedwig doesn’t stand up

Have any of you ever seen This is Spinal Tap? That’s a funny movie. My favorite scene is when one of the members of the group, I think the second guitarist is talking to the lead guitarist about the band’s amps. He proudly points out that the levels for volume, bass, treble, etc., go up to 11 instead of 10 – making them the best amps in the world. The director then asks, “Well, why don’t you just make ten louder instead of making up a level 11?” The guitarist looks at the director, looks at the amp, thinks for a while, and then says, dumbfounded, “’cuz it’s 11.”

Yes, that is a funny band movie. Hedwig and the Angry Inch, however, is not. Of course, when trying to classify John Cameron Mitchell’s film, based on his own play, it would be wrong to classify it solely as a “bandroad movie” like the Spinal Tap mock-umentary or Almost Famous.

The story is mostly centered upon the leader of the group, Hedwig, an East Berlin native who’s gone through a sex-change operation, and what can be termed his “psychological journey.” And speaking of genre, it is wrong to assume that this is a comedy. Perhaps for the first half it is. But by half-way through the film the entire dynamic of the movie begins to change completely, as if the film were a drama about heroin addicts rather than a light-hearted transsexual with a quick wit and flashy outfits. By the latter two-thirds of the film, it gets too incoherent, too pretentious and way too over-the-top to maintain any interest.

The story is a mix of Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s (the name of the band) current American tour and flashbacks of Hedwig’s (played by director John Cameron Mitchell) childhood through his arrival in the United States. In between performances of some of the band’s songs (all of them composed by Stephen Trask), we get a feel for Hedwig’s history, including her control-freak mom, her experiences listening to the U.S. Army radio that emanated from the American sector of Berlin, and how she fell in love with an American GI named Luther.

Meanwhile, we find out that the main reason for Hedwig’s tour in the U.S. is that she demands compensation from a popular rocker named Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), who collaborated with her early in his career, but then hung her out to dry. After that, I sincerely don’t know what really goes on in the movie, and, frankly, I don’t really care.

John Cameron Mitchell’s performance is admirable; I’ll give him that. It certainly is a tour de force, as he wore forty different costumes throughout the film and numerous over-the-top performances that did not look easy to do. But I’m still unsure whether or not he attained the level of humor he aimed for.

One of the first scenes of the movie features Hedwig before a performance telling jokes, all of which are accompanied by a rim-shot by the drummer – the same formula could be applied (and I’m not kidding) to every single other joke Mitchell’s character tells the rest of the movie. Of course, a rim-shot would be inappropriate in another circumstance, because there isn’t another scene like the first, but the quality of the joke, the form, and the delivery, is the same. I ask you, what’s the fun in that? Some jokes, however, are indeed humorous, though they are spread apart and don’t last very long.

Another possibility is that Mitchell wanted the bigger joke to encompass the visual scope of the film – including the gaudy costumes and Hedwig’s general behavior. Unfortunately for him, all of that leaves a taste of “it’s been done.” The band looks like they could be funny, but we never hear from them. In fact, the whole movie seems like a big one-man show for Mitchell, a chance for him to massage his massive ego, because no one else seems to get in more than five lines, with the possible exception of Michael Pitt. Mitchell, however, has the advantage over Pitt of having what is commonly referred to in the movie business as “the ability to walk and talk at the same time.”

The score is also an excruciatingly important component of the film. Obviously, the composer, Stephen Trask, has done his homework, as one can easily trace back the influences in his work to some of the artists Hedwig mentioned early in the movie. In my opinion, what Trask has churned out is a highly irregular piece of work, but this is can be just a matter of taste. One of the first songs, “Origin of Love,” is quite enjoyable, and I found it to sound like mid-1970s David Bowie, although the lyrics sometimes seemed trite. The “Angry Inch” song, however, is a big homage to glam rock. By now, I’ve heard “Rock and Roll Part II” so many times, I can’t go to sporting events anymore or I might commit mass-murder on the marching band. The best words to describe the “inch” song would be “dissonant, loud and crappy.”

Some of the other songs follow suit in being extravagant in form, measure and delivery. In contrast, some of the songs are overly slow, talking about touchy-feely sentiments, the pursuit of happiness, and the like. That comment may seem derisive, and it is; the fact is that the writing is done insuch a manner that the songs become campy and repetitive, hitting the listener over the head with this overall message of love.

This is where the movie starts to fall apart. Perhaps Mitchell, searching for a way to show Hedwig’s confusion and inner turmoil concerning the search for her “other half,” decided to make the film more incoherent towards the end, but then lost control. The final third of the film is nothing but a sequence of songs with dumbed-down lyrics, as if the film were only being held together by the inter-twining of the present and past, and when they both came together, all hell broke loose. The effect of the film is not reached for a few reasons.

First, the narrative breaks down. Second, the songs become unbearably cliché and trite. The combination of these two effects causes the film to become confusing and boring. And before you can realize it, all the comical elements of the film have been lost. Hedwig, which began as Pricilla, Queen of the Desert, ends up as Requiem for a Dream.

There’s nothing wrong with a little mix of tragedy and comedy, but there’s a difference if one minute you’re sticking your fork into steak and the next you’re sticking it into flan. The result of doing so is basically the same result you get after seeing this movie: indigestion.

So what is Hedwig exactly? It’s a waste of my time, that’s what it is. If you want to see a band movie, go rent Almost Famous or This is Spinal Tap. If you want a film with good soundtrack, go for High Fidelity. Here’s an interesting piece of symbolism: more than once, the Angry Inch plays in a bar or general venue in front of a backdrop that displays, prominently, the Titanic sinking. This band should have been on that boat.