Like most great film adaptations of plays or musicals, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” refuses to be confined by the original material. The complete score has arrived intact (and in the right order, for once), and large chunks of the script are virtually untouched, but make no mistake: This isn’t the Hedwig you knew and feared downtown.
One of the biggest thrills in watching John Cameron Mitchell’s searing directorial debut is realizing that, as is so rarely the case with movie adaptations, the original creators were actually able to reshape this one themselves. A great amount of thought was clearly put into the film, and it’s exhilarating to see the narrative pitfalls lurking just around the corner and then see Mitchell duck every one (well, almost every one). Virtually anything that may have seemed static or self-contained on stage has been completely rethought.
Hedwig’s hard-luck tale of love in the time of glam rock, which includes some of the funniest lines I’ve ever heard in a musical, loses none of its bite or poignancy in the film. Mitchell’s performance is just as sensational as it was on stage, and while “Hedwig” is clearly still his show, it has been expanded into far more of an ensemble piece. Frank DeMarco, the relatively unseasoned director of photography, has given the movie the exact look it needed: trashy but clever and a little beautiful, just like our heroine. This may be the first movie musical since “Cabaret” to truly break free of its stage origins. In fact, it may be the best movie musical since “Cabaret.”
Which is not to say it’s perfect by any means. The stage production presents a few arguably insurmountable difficulties, most stemming from the show’s basic premise (one man on one stage telling one baroque tale). In my opinion, two of the movie’s innovations don’t come off. The biggest problem centers around Tommy Speck, the Dungeons and Dragons-loving Army brat who morphs into rock god Tommy Gnosis under Hedwig’s tutelage and love, only to cast Hedwig aside. The (overall wise) decision has been made to have a second actor play Tommy, and rising young actor Michael Pitt gets the quivery insecurity and confusion down pat. The problem arises at the end, when Hedwig and Tommy converge. At the “Hedwig” press day, Mitchell said he and the producers really grappled with how to stage the finale, now that Mitchell could no longer “become” Tommy. I don’t want to give anything away, but the end result feels like the filmmakers painted themselves into a creative corner. It’s the only true misstep in the whole movie.
Also, in the interest of trimming the film’s length (no inch jokes, please), Mitchell cut the scene explaining how Hedwig and Yitzhak (Miriam Shor, even better here than she was on stage) first met. This may have been a mistake: The Hedwig-Yitzhak dynamic has been expanded in a series of smart and concise vignettes throughout the film, but this subplot loses much of its weight if you don’t know who Yitzhak is. The sharpness of the new scenes between almost make up for it, but not quite. Other modifications work out much better. Rather than stage the entire evening within shouting distance of the rock arena where Tommy is supposedly playing, as Hedwig did on stage, the film takes place at a series of nasty chain restaurants called Bilgewater’s. The new idea is that Hedwig is stalking Tommy’s U.S. tour and lining up gigs at this chain of would-be Red Lobsters. It’s a great way to spotlight Arianne Phillips’ extraordinary costumes, not to mention Mike Potter’s wigs and makeup; after all, each new gig requires a new outfit. And the audiences’ confused (and occasionally hostile) responses at these places are a lot funnier -- and, truth be told, probably more realistic -- than the adulation he received in the stage production. Phyllis Stein, Hedwig’s worthless and unseen agent, is not only visible now but the divine Andrea Martin, who is as funny as ever. (Mitchell has promised that some of Martin’s best material will resurface in the DVD, as will the scene where Hedwig and Yitzhak meet.) The flashbacks to East Germany are handled with plenty of visual flair and wit, and the projections have turned into some beautiful animation by Emily Hubley.
The score, meanwhile, sounds even better on screen than it did at the Jane Street Theatre. To be honest, I was a bit nervous about this: Rock musicals often sound a lot more bona fide in the theater, largely because we’re so used to hearing a certain kind of score on stage that any amplification sounds raucous. Hedwig composer/lyricist Stephen Trask comes from a pure rock background, though, and he pulls no punches here. In fact, he’s enlisted Bob Mould, formerly of Husker Du and current indie rock god, to take lead guitar, and the result sounds great. Girls Against Boys, another indie stalwart, contributes some overdubs and the occasional background song, but the score is what it is because of Trask and now Mould. I know a lot of “Hedwig” fans who have remained ambivalent about the score; the movie should take care of that. (Bizarre footnote: Trask mentioned at the press day that he’s rewriting “Tear Me Down” for no less than Meat Loaf, turning all Berlin Wall references into Alamo references. Just when you thought “Hedwig” couldn’t get any stranger …)
I honestly have no idea how this movie will do commercially. Mitchell has made very few concessions to mainstream tastes, and the gay content has actually been boosted a bit. At the same time, a lot of non-theatergoing music fans should catch on to the score -- Bob Mould and Girls Against Boys both have fervent cult followings - and this unusually bleak movie summer is screaming out for something clever and funny. If there’s any justice, Hedwig’s “internationally ignored” days should be winding down. She has made herself a great movie.
Lincoln Center is currently airing a fairly comprehensive selection of films written by Harold Pinter through July 31 as part of its all-encompassing summer festival. Some of the offerings (“The Servant,” “Betrayal”) are pretty well known, but enthusiasts will relish the chance to see such obscurities as “Heat of the Day” and Peter Hall’s 1973 “The Homecoming.” I’m particularly looking forward to seeing his 1991 adaptation of the unforgettable Ian McEwan novel “The Comfort of Strangers.” And if that isn’t enough for theatre buffs, the opening-night presentation of the New York Film Festival (also at Lincoln Center) will also have stage connections. Opening Sept. 28 is Jacques Rivette’s “Va Savoir (Who Knows?)” which uses a production of Pirandello’s “As You Desire Me” as a plot point. No word yet on the rest of the film fest slate, but last year included “Boesman and Lena” and two of the Beckett short films, so I’m guessing there’s more to come.
We may finally get to see “Original Sin” after all. After more than a year of delays, MGM has announced the Michael Cristofer film for an Aug. 3 release. That lag time is downright speedy compared to the modern-day “Othello” remake “O,” which may finally see the light of day on Aug. 31. After sitting on the shelves for more than two years, however, I’ll believe it when I see it.
A recent New York Times article on the Seussical travails included an offhanded remark by producer Barry Weissler about an upcoming movie version. Anyone want to put a wager on this happening in the next, say, 75 years?
Clear your plans for July 27. After seeing David Warner give a superb performance as a politico with a headstrong daughter (Cherry Jones in a Salvation Army uniform) in the Roundabout’s Major Barbara, run to one of those multiplexes down 42nd Street and catch “Planet of the Apes,” where he plays another politico with another headstrong daughter (Helena Bonham Carter in a chimp uniform). Zak Orth, one of Warner’s costars, will appear in the limited-release comedy “Wet Hot American Summer,” also opening that day. And current Annie Get Your Gun star Crystal Bernard delves deeper into the country milieu in “Jackpot,” yet another July 27 release. Don Cheadle supposedly has a cameo in “Rush Hour 2” (Aug. 3). And as I said earlier, “Original Sin” appears to be on its way …
My Favorite Thought: I couldn’t make up my mind between two good letters this time. Philip makes a great suggestion about filming a musical for TV, although I have one major question:
“In reading the last ‘Stage to Screen,’ it occurred to me that many of the artists we were naming had stage experience. I was thinking how wonderful it would be to see a live TV performance of one of the musicals named, such as they did with TV in the 1950s. The thrill of knowing it is happening at the very moment we are watching is very intriguing.
“I think a wonderful show to do live on TV would be The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The viewers could then vote on the ending by using the Internet. The producers might even throw in a little suspense (and gain more Internet votes) by delaying the performance of the ending until the next evening. That would allow time for chat rooms to be set up to discuss the ending. Here's hoping that in the future your column can be called ‘From Stage to Screen and Internet’!”
Note: I agree that “Drood” would be perfect for a live broadcast. However, isn’t a huge part of the appeal of the show seeing if the actors can come right back at you with the ending you’ve picked for them? Doesn’t it lose a lot of its momentum if they have the day to practice?
Meanwhile, Matt thinks Rent should go ahead with Spike — but not Spike Lee:
“In some ways, Spike would be an interesting choice for ‘Rent.’ He knows his way around a dance number: Witness the musical interludes and pledge cheers in ‘School Days.’ But still, although it could be wonderful, I’m not overly excited about the idea. I’d prefer Martin Scorcese, who also knows a thing or two about musicals (he directed the concert film ‘The Last Waltz,’ almost directed ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ and did a great job directing the video for Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’). Plus he’s still very experimental, and Rent will really need to shake up moviemaking the way the stage version gave a shot in the arm to Broadway. Another interesting choice might be David Fincher (‘Seven,’ ‘Fight Club’). His meticulous approach could be just what Rent needs to work on screen.
“But the best choice for a director, far and away, would be Spike Jonze (‘Being John Malkovich’). He’s made tons of jaw-droppingly good music videos and has proven time and again that he always looks at the material he has carefully, and then chooses an absolutely perfect treatment for it. Take one look at the sitcom spin on Weezer’s ‘Buddy Holly,’ the spontaneous production number in Bjork’s ‘It’s So Quiet’ or the amateur dance troupe in Fatboy Slim’s ‘Praise You,’ and you know that Spike Jonze will come up with something that will make the movie musical a viable form again.”
Your Thoughts: Who’s seen “Hedwig”? Am I going overboard with the praise? In terms of the changes, what works and what doesn’t work? I’d love to hear some dissenting views.
Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage.