Adapted from the hit off-Broadway musical of the same name is this tale of an "internationally ignored" rock & roll singer who hails from Communist Berlin and who dreams of becoming an American sensation. Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell), born a boy named Hansel, is raised by a single mother (Alberta Watson) who wishes to see her son do better than his poverty-stricken family. Some years later, Hansel is attracted to a good-looking American G.I, who promises a better life overseas for young Hansel, under one condition: that he undergo a sex-change operation to become a fully functional female who he can then marry. The operation is seriously botched, leaving the now-renamed Hedwig with an "angry inch" only to be stranded in a dingy Kansas trailer park on the day the Berlin Wall comes tumbling down. Hedwig then supports herself through a series of ill-fated lounge gigs and side jobs, meeting up with 16-year old Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), a religious type who befriends her and later steals her songs and becomes the rock star Hedwig always dreamed of being. Undeterred, Hedwig continues to perform in the shadow of Tommy's sold-out stadium tour, attempting to make herself whole in spirit, if not physically. The film features several songs by composer Stephen Trask, who also appears as a member of Hedwig's disinterested rock band; Miriam Shor portrays Hedwig's newfound love and back-up singer.
A mixed-bag effort to translate John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask's ambitious rock musical to the screen, this remains a worthwhile movie experience on any account, successfully opening up its heartfelt, often sad account of an "internationally ignored" rock singer suffering from a botched sex change operation. Mitchell's fierce, hypnotic performance is as indelible on film as it was on stage - fearful, hilarious and moving. His direction is a bit less remarkable, as the movie offers much to look at, but little of it comes through in quite the same way as the music. The filmmakers too often literalize what should be expressed musically, which robs the viewer of some of the discoveries that might have made the film more successful. A few stretches sag as well, but the movie springs to life the most in its final reel - when the title character takes on a young protégé (a quietly effective Michael Pitt) - even if it fails to fully reach its emotional mark. Audiences at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival clearly found Hedwig refreshing: it won the Audience Award as well as a Grand Jury directing prize for Mitchell.