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What makes a good cult film? Well, if one follows the formula for success inspired by The Rocky Horror Picture Show, gender conflict, cross-dressing, flamboyant costumes, and strange musical numbers are all a good place to start. Throw in the misguided attempts of a bad rock and roll band touring the states, a la This is Spinal Tap, and you come close to describing the new musical comedy Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Based on the hit off-Broadway musical, Hedwig has been adapted into a movie by the play’s creators. Cameron Mitchell, the writer and director, and composer-lyricist Stephen Trask have transformed the material into a wonderfully funny film (Mitchell also takes on the lead role for the film).

Elaborating on the original, Mitchell and Trask use animation and an expanded background story to punch up the new version. But the added narrative is still second fiddle to the outrageous musical numbers that frequent the picture.

German Transsexuals at Midnight

John Cameron MitchellGerman born, Hedwig relates her unhappy life to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Growing up as Hansel in East Berlin, Hedwig was given the unfortunate advice from his mother that love is what you feel when you find your other half. Influenced by the songs he heard on Armed Forces Radio, Hansel/Hedwig took to the music of Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Iggy Pop and is forever searching for his/her counterpart.

After having an operation so she can marry an American GI, Hedwig leaves Germany for Kansas and is soon divorced when her husband falls in love with another boy. From there she starts a rock band with a group of Korean Army wives and sets out to carve her name in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But love is what she finds when she falls for a Jesus freak teen named Tommy, whom she spots in the audience at one of her early gigs. When Tommy finds out about Hedwig’s true gender, he leaves her and becomes famous on his own, using the songs they both wrote while in love.

Coffee Shops turned Musical Venues

Now in present day, Tommy is on the charts and on a successful tour. Hedwig and the Angry Inch shadow Tommy with their own small tour, attempting to gain publicity from the Tommy connection while playing in small coffee shops and malls across the Midwest. Meanwhile, her lover in the band, played by actress Miriam Shor, grows tired of their shtick. He secretly plots his escape by auditioning for a cruise ship tour of the musical Rent.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is less about fame or rock and roll excess and more about Hedwig’s quest for spiritual wholeness (hence her name: Head/Wig). As she introduces her band from behind a salad bar, it’s apparent that everything she does is out of step with her surroundings. The drab venues of her tour are suddenly filled with color and imagination when she steps onto to her own stage.

Animation and Glam Rock

One added surprise to Hedwig are the animated sequences dispersed throughout the film. Created by animator Judith Hubley, the scenes stand out as the most honest depictions of Hedwig’s struggle for self-completion since they are the only time that Hedwig’s self-guided tour stops for an outside viewpoint. It’s an interesting reversal from how animation is usually used in that it is more objective than subjective.

All in all, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is quite impressive for first time movie director Cameron Mitchell. Producer Christine Vachon, who has been involved with many of the best films in the New York independent scene (Boys Don’t Cry, Kids, I Shot Andy Warhol) seems to have accomplished with this film what she intended to accomplish with Velvet Goldmine a few years back. It’s her second look at Glamour Rock and I get the impression that she finally hit the nail on the head (Velvet Goldmine was an unfortunate failure).

Although it’s impossible to predict, Hedwig may end up being the next midnight cult classic. Its hilarious creative energy invites the kind of audience participation that energized Rocky Horror almost thirty years ago.