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[whitespace] Losing More Than An Inch

From stage to screen, 'Hedwig' suffers from cuts and changes

By Gina Arnold

WHEN I WAS a little girl, one of my three wishes was that the world were like a musical, so that people would burst into song and dance every five minutes--or whenever they were outdoors in a crowd. (The other two wishes were that my parents would get me a kitten.)

Even at a young age, however, I was aware that this was an impossible dream, to quote a phrase. How would we learn all our parts, and learn to dance in unison with perfect strangers? Still, I thought that the world would be a better place if we sang instead of spoke, so I learned all the words to every musical ... just in case.

Of course, when I grew up, I realized that musicals were stupid and lowbrow--even my favorites, The Sound of Music, Oliver! and My Fair Lady--and bad as they were as plays, they were even worse as movies. So it shouldn't have come as a surprise that the movie of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, an unusually good off-Broadway one-man show, isn't so hot either.

In Hedwig, the real audience in the theater is in the position of an audience at a nightclub where the lead singer (John Cameron Mitchell, as Hedwig) of a band is having an onstage nervous breakdown due to the proximity of her former lover and archenemy, rock star Tommy Gnosis, who's stolen all her songs.

Mitchell's high-concept play within a rock concert works perfectly, which is why the show was incredibly popular. When I was living in New York, I had two friends who were obsessed with it. They went five times that I know of, and that's a lot when you consider tickets cost upward of $45. They saw every actor who ever played the lead role, including the allegedly awful Ally Sheedy.

Then, when the thrill of going had finally paled, they started going to see Cheater, the backing band, at Lower East Side bars like Manitobas and the Lakeside Lounge. By their account, Cheater was terrible and only played things like Beatles covers, but my two friends, both 22, were obsessed with all things Hedwig. I never was clear why the play resonated so much with them, but I know that at their age (well, younger, but I was rock-obsessed from an early age), I loved the Tubes in the same way.

Transgressive things just seemed so cool. And Hedwig was a fun play, taking place in the basement of an old MEPA district hotel. It pushed all the right rock buttons, without being too absurd.

ALAS! Hedwig the movie is far from the successful artistic achievement that the play was. Indeed, I wonder if those who didn't see the play will even get it. Mitchell has rewritten it considerably, in a manner that leaves out a lot of the backstory. Sadly, the result is incredibly pompous, without being nearly as coherent.

In the play, for example, it's never quite clear if Hedwig herself really is Tommy Gnosis, or vice versa. Thus, the play seemed to be a comment on the rise and fall of all rock acts that can go from playing the Oakland Coliseum to playing the San Mateo County Fair in a few short years.

Mitchell played both roles in the play, but in the film, Tommy is played by Michael Pitt, and all the ambiguity is gone. The ending loses its meaning too: all that stuff about East Berlin and Kansas trailer parks now seems strangely irrelevant.

The original played with clichés about rock stardom and drag queeniness, while spoofing the bombast of "concept" bands and records like the Who's Tommy, Styx's Mr. Roboto and--these days--Tool. But the movie merely points out the impossibility of translating rock into another idiom.

Of course, the experience of seeing a movie at a run-of-the-mill theater is a lot different from seeing it onstage in New York City, but that's not the only problem: the music is another one.

The filmmakers have thrown out some of the weaker hard-rock numbers, but in their place they reprise "The Origin of Love" three times, which forces them to use the ballad "Midnight Radio" (the centerpiece of the play) as the show-stopping finale, which it isn't quite.

Besides, when you come to think about it, it's not really surprising that Cheater wasn't that good a live band. If it were, it would never have agreed to back up a drag queen for a year, it would have been on the road, playing nightclubs in Peoria.

This is the problem with all fictional rock movies, books and made-for-TV movies: the music is invariably far worse than that of a "real" band. Real bands have no narrative--not in their songs, which are more like poetry (though not quite, as artists' attempts to publish their lyrics show), and not in their lives.

And yet, rock acts are continually attempting to thrust their art into the straitjacket of theatrical narrative, and the attempt nearly always fails. Abba's musical is the most successful to date, but that just shows how limited Abba's landscape is.

Rock & roll really needs room in our heads to move and mutate, for our imaginations to embrace it. When it's tethered to a movie or a play, it just seems kind of ... dare I say it? Dumb. And I, for one, can't afford to think of it that way.

Bongos and Cell Phones

PEOPLE TALK a lot about the changing landscape of the Bay Area. A walk down legendary Haight Street is a case in point, but whether the changes are good or bad is open to interpretation. For years, the place was riddled with panhandlers, hippies and punk rockers with Mohawks, tattoos and combat boots, all rivaling one another for tourists' spare change.

Nowadays, there's nary a call for good bud or spare change, and the only street musician I saw--a reggae dude playing bongos in front of Haight Street Music--was talking on a cell phone.

Finally, after 30 years or so, the hippies have died out. More surprising, to me, was the disappearance of the teenage punk squad, those kids who wore "Sid Vicious Lives" T-shirts and Exploited leather jackets, despite not having been born before either act's demise.

That hasn't stopped some swift promoter from holding a three-day punk-rock extravaganza, "Holidays in the Sun," at Maritime Hall this weekend, featuring reformed versions of bands like the Exploited, Slaughter and the Dogs and the Dickies. The whole thing sounds kind of sad to me, but then, I was there the first time around.

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From the August 23-29, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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