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Transsexual seeks fulfillment in joyous new musical

Contrary to popular belief, comparing the cinematic version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch to the legendary Rocky Horror Picture Show (as many have been prone to do) does the new film no favors. Yes, Rocky Horror may be instantly recognizable even beyond the pop culture crowd, but while it may be an excellent midnight movie, it's only so-so as a movie movie -- away from all the festivities, it provides for a rather, umm, rocky viewing experience (try watching it at home alone if you don't believe me).

Hedwig, on the other hand, is a triumph no matter when or where it's shown. Billed as a "post-punk neo-glam rock musical," this adaptation of the 1998 Off-Broadway hit has enough surface kitsch to dazzle the senses, but it's also an unexpectedly poignant tale of one individual's journey toward becoming a complete person.

John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask created the stage show -- Mitchell wrote the monologues and played the lead character, while Trask created the songs and appeared in a supporting role -- and they were wisely allowed to captain the film version as well, with Mitchell getting additional credit as screenwriter-director. The result is anything but a "filmed play"; instead, Mitchell has opened up the production to such a degree, it feels every bit as much of an original movie musical as, say, this summer's extravagant Moulin Rouge.

The Hedwig of the title starts life as Hansel, a young boy living in East Germany with his single mom (Dad was a G.I. who was thrown out once he started molesting the kid). Growing up listening to the American music on the Armed Forces Radio (The Captain and Tennille and Anne Murray were particular favorites), Hansel longed to escape from his Communist homeland and taste freedom in whatever form it presented itself. He gets his wish once he meets Luther (Maurice Dean Wint), an American G.I. who promises to marry the boy and take him to America. But for this to work, Hansel has to undergo a sex change operation; the surgery is botched, leaving a mound of flesh where there should be none (hence, the "angry inch").

Hansel (now called Hedwig) does get to America, but she's soon abandoned in a Kansas trailer park after Luther leaves her for a young boy. Believing that rock & roll can give her a purpose in life, she starts penning her own songs, only to later have them stolen by Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), her teenage boyfriend who goes on to fame and fortune on the strength of her tunes. Bitter and dejected, Hedwig begins touring (in chain restaurants populated by seniors!) with her band The Angry Inch, all the while hoping she can eventually find peace with Tommy Gnosis and with her own fractured psyche.

Powered by catchy, soaring rock anthems modelled after the Ziggy Stardust era, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, like Moulin Rouge before it, serves as a modern reminder of the ability of music to convey emotions when mere words won't do. Performing these songs at regular intervals throughout the film, using animated sequences (courtesy of Emily Hubley) to illustrate the Greek myths that Hansel was fed during his childhood, and jumping from the past to the present whenever it suits the story's flow, Mitchell has made a movie that's bursting at the seams with energy and imagination.

Ultimately, though, it's his performance even more than his direction that takes the movie onto another level. This isn't merely a vamp'n'tramp show; instead, Mitchell's performance as Hedwig is about as fully realized as any you'll see this year. The character is by turns sexy, scary, outrageous, obnoxious, pitiable and vulnerable. The scenes in which Hedwig tries to communicate with her husband and fellow band member Yitzhak (actually played by a woman, actress Miriam Shor) pack some real emotion, and even these are topped by the lovingly filmed scenes during which Hedwig and Timmy Gnosis first become acquainted.

A penetrating parable about self-worth and self-realization -- as well as an offbeat example of the old show biz axiom that any person can go out a nobody and come back a star -- the joyous and raucous Hedwig is anything but a drag.

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