It's an unlikely entry because you just don't see many musicals at this relentlessly arty independent film festival. But Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the biopic of a whacked-out East German emigre with Courtney Love's disposition and Farrah Fawcett's hairdo, seduced the selection committee. "It's burning with originality and energy," says programmer Shari Frilot. Hedwig always did. When it opened off-Broadway three years ago, critics raved about Stephen Trask's songs, and although the show's writer and star, John Cameron Mitchell, appeared nightly in drag (usually the fastest road to camp marginalization), his hilarious, moving mock concert became a mainstream theatrical phenomenon. "In the whole long, sorry history of rock musicals," declared Rolling Stone, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the first one that truly rocks."
Killer Films and New Line Cinema joined to give it a chance on the screen. "We thought it would be a really cool low-budget movie," says New Line's president of production, Michael DeLuca. "John said his inspiration [for the movie] was Bob Fosse, especially All That Jazz, and that was 100% on the right track." With a safe-bet budget of $5 million, Mitchell, 37, was allowed to star, write the screenplay and make his directorial debut. "I was bored with acting," explains the theater veteran, "and I had a lot of strong ideas I didn't want to foist on someone else."
Last summer, after a stint learning his new craft at the Sundance Filmmakers Lab, Mitchell headed to Toronto and directed while wearing Hedwig's heels. ("It was like torture," he says.) He opened up the material by adding flashbacks of Hedwig's bleak Berlin childhood, her rocky romantic history and even her botched sex-change operation (which explains the "angry inch"). "We kept the dramatic structure of the show," says Mitchell, who also kept its heady themes (borrowed from Plato and Ibsen), as well as Trask's irresistible score of country, rock and '70s-style ballads. And Hedwig still bears a striking resemblance to a German baby sitter from Mitchell's Army-brat childhood. "She had so many dates!" recalls Mitchell, who later realized she was also a prostitute. "She was no beauty, but she had poise." Ditto his scrappy but innovative film. Hedwig could leave Sundance a winner, and not just in its heroine's own mind.