Only John Cameron Mitchell could fully realize on film the off-Broadway musical that may well go down in history as the best to capture the essence of rock 'n' roll. Utilizing just about every cinematic tool at his disposal, Mitchell now fires an unprecedented shotgun blast of a film, maybe the best movie of the year to date and certainly the best musical. That's saying something, considering the flamboyant audacity of Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge. (It's already won the audience award for drama at the Sundance Film Festival.)
Mitchell, reprising his roles as writer, director and star, imagines all the possibilities of what onstage was a one-man (woman?) show, as Hedwig once again recounts her odyssey from East Berlin to a Johnson City, Kans., trailer park to becoming an "internationally ignored song stylist" searching like many of us for completion through love.
Mitchell, who won the directing prize at Sundance, would've been nuts not to take advantage of the visual possibilities hinted at in the stage version. The local version is still on the boards at the Shim Sham Club. On a lark, I invited local actor Flynn De Marco, whose stage version of Hedwig is quite impressive, to tag along for a press screening. When he wasn't laughing his ass off, or pointing out inside jokes, De Marco was wiping tears off his face. That's about as good a thumb's-up as you'll get.
Mitchell conceived the stage version as a tour de force in which embittered glam rocker Hedwig holds court in her Farrah Fawcett-ish wig and tattered, sequined, acid-wash-denim jumper and tells her story. At times, stick-figure drawings flash from a projector on the back of the stage. Onstage, this is all affecting, but limited, as Mitchell's words and tragicomic flair and the band's music must command the audience's attention.
The musical firepower of the stage version makes an easy transition to the screen, fit for an MTV-friendly viewing audience while still recalling the glam and punk influences of Iggy Pop, David Bowie and the Sex Pistols. The band features guitarist Stephen Trask, who wrote the music for the stage version, and some off-camera guitar muscle on the soundtrack is provided by ex-Husker Du and Sugar frontman Bob Mould. Miriam Schor reprises her role as Hedwig's jealous husband Yitzhak, whose ambitions are held at bay as Hedwig nearly drowns in her bitterness.
But Mitchell the filmmaker also sees the potential elsewhere, telling Hedwig's story through flashbacks while turning a one-night performance into a tour that stalks and mocks her former lover, rocker Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt). And instead of just the one Farrah wig job and denim ensemble, there are wigs, wigs, wigs (courtesy of Mike Potter) and costumes, costumes, costumes (designed by certain Oscar nominee Arianne Phillips). She dresses Hedwig as a poster girl for glam and punk fashion nightmares, one moment writhing in zebra-striped Spandex pants and cropped tank top, the other bouncing around in a faux rabbit-fur jacket. Elsewhere, Hedwig's manager Phyllis comes to life thanks to Andrea Martin, while flashbacks are fleshed out as real scenes, and the slides from the stage show metamorphose into fluid, pop-art animation sequences by Emily Hubley.
At his peak, Mitchell turns "Wig in a Box" into a video as Hedwig, decked out in a flowing wig-hair dress (!), opens the side of her trailer up to reveal an imaginary stage, complete with footlights.
All of which does more than just transform a one-man stage show into a cinematic experience. Instead of assaulting us, Hedwig transports us, the only price being the literal distance of viewer from screen alas, this Hedwig can't spit at the audience.
The story, based loosely on a myth from Plato's "Symposium" (of all things), finds Hedwig in a state of constant search and being destroyed; by his father, his mother, his American G.I. lover and his broken promise of the American dream; and finally an Army officer's son whom Hedwig grooms to become a rock star only to be abandoned yet again.
With so much fleshed out in a splatter of visual and aural pastels, Mitchell as Hedwig still manages to be transcendent; his heroine is more an abstraction than a bonafide character, as much a symbol as the Berlin Wall metaphor established in the opening tune, "Tear Me Down," as Hedwig declares, "Ain't much of a difference/ Between a bridge and a wall/ Without me right in the middle/ You would be nothing at all."
The ending, which onstage is left open to interpretation, is no less ambiguous on screen, although the suggestion of completion is strong. Fittingly enough, considering that Mitchell may have finally completed his story in this most advantageous forum -- angry, hopefully, no more.