Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

Hedwig and the Angry inch is a filmed interpretation of a cult genderqueer rock musical (what a mouthful!) The script was written by John Cameron Mitchell, who also directs the film with an amazing attention to detail and plays Hedwig with all the dedication and perfection of someone who was present at the character’s birth. The music and lyrics, which are immediately catchy but also improve and mature each time you hear them, are written by Stephen Trask (who also plays the part of band member Skszp.)

Hansel (later Hedwig) is an East German. He was born male but is now suffering from an “angry inch” where his manhood used to be after a botched sex change operation performed so he could escape the wrong side of the Berlin Wall as someone’s wife. Hence the title of the movie. After taking on his mother’s first name, marrying and making it out of Germany, Hedwig’s is abandoned by her husband.

Hedwig has another ex-partner, Tommy Gnosis (played by Michael Pitt, singing voice provided by Trask) who stole all his songs and became a superstar. Now Hedwig and his band “present the appearance of stalking him” around the country. That’s about it for the plot – any other elements of storytelling are short remembrances of Hansel as a child. The focus is really on the music, as well as Hedwig’s captivating face, often shot to fill the screen, adorned with a distinctive blonde wig (often with the upturned Germanic horns of hair.) Of course it’s all down to personal taste, but the music for me was instantly likeable, very distinctive, pensive, melancholy, but also arcing into heavy rock. Trask has that enviable ability to write songs which feel familiar but at the same time completely novel.

The narrative is unwound mainly through Hedwig’s inter-song autobiographical heart-to-heart moments with his various different audiences in various low key locations. For the most part the band’s audience is anyone who will pay attention. For example at “The Menses Fair: a celebration of women and music”, the audience is one vacant looking goth girl under a black umbrella.

The stand-out performance is Mitchell as Hedwig, a character beautiful and delicate, almost to the point of being breakable, yet also capable of vicious passport-tearing malice. Miriam Shor plays Yitzhak, Hedwig’s husband. It is to my eternal ignorance that I watched this film the first time and didn’t even question that Yitzhak wasn’t being played by a man. Shor does a fantastic job, is manly but at the same time fragile, and like Mitchell and Trask has been with the show since its beginnings.

This film is also really funny. There are too many stunning one liners and surreal little moments to mention them all, but to give you a sense of Hedwig’s darkly droll sense of humour, during the ‘Angry Inch’ song she laments, “Long story short, when I woke up from the operation I was bleeding down there… My first day as a woman and already it’s that time of the month.” There are also parody moments of sing-along (during my favourite song ‘Wig in a Box’, the most immediately memorable), when a dancing little wig hops along the lyrics which have suddenly appeared at the bottom of the scream. There is also the scene where Hansel meets his American husband-to-be, which sets up the evil sugary nature of American treats versus the bitter German treat “Gummibaren”.

It’s also visually engaging. Some events are explained through line-drawing cartoons, such as sketchy stick figure representations of Hedwig’s birth, line drawings like thin crayon on a sugar paper background. We feel we are inside Hedwig’s mind. The animation during ‘The Origin of Love’, is a slow moving, calm retelling of a tale from Plato’s ‘Symposium’ dealing with the symbolic idea that two people are only halves who must find one another in order to be made whole again. Arianne Phillips also does an excellent job as costume designer; each look is distinctive, over the top, but also somehow soft.

I have learned many things from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I’ve cemented my belief that a man can be more the ideal of a beautiful woman than most women, I’ve learned that women can also portray men believably without the audience batting an eyelid, and I’ve learned that my first two points are perfectly inconsequential. Oh yeh, I also learned that you shouldn’t put a bra in a dryer (apparently it warps).

“Come one, come two, come all…” The Devil’s Carnival (2012)

A while ago now, we saw the release of a very different type of musical. In 2008, the dark shadow of Repo! The Genetic Opera fell across the land – unfortunately it was so shadowy and dark that it was not seen by that many people. This is a great shame.

Repo! written by Terrance Zdunich and Darren Smith, and directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, traded on the unique selling point of being a rock opera with close blood ties to the Saw franchise. The result was refreshing; all the emotional intensity you would expect from any sing-your-guts-out musical, punctuated by moments where people actually were having their guts pulled out by the nightmarish figure of the ‘Repo Man’. Even though the musical featured established stars of stage and screen such as Sarah Brightman, Anthony Head and Paul Sorvino, it never feels ‘safe’. The filmmakers never err on the side of caution; the audience are asked to make a lot of imaginative leaps head first into a dystopian society where people are at risk of having their brand new organs repossessed if they can’t keep up their payments. With the exception of some understandable low-budget moments, it doesn’t feel like any compromises have been made. I have a great fondness for Repo (I even bought the soundtrack) and it has gradually built up a dedicated cult following.

It was with great interest therefore that I heard about Zdunich and Bousman’s latest film, The Devil’s Carnival (2012). This new venture is based on the notion that hell is within a circus tent and the devil has at his disposal a retinue of performers who he can command to re-enact the sins of new inmates, in order to show them the error of their ways. The literary nerd in me loved the repurposed, spirited ‘upcycling’ of Aesop’s fables as a means of framing their backstories.

The central three sinners are John (Sean Patrick Flanery of Young Indiana Jones fame), who cannot let go of his grief and despair, Ms Merrywood (Briana Evigan, with a strangely appropriate background in both dance and teen horror flicks) who is constantly distracted by material wealth, and Tamara (Jessica Lowndes, seen most recently alongside Will Ferrell in A Deadly Adoption) who foolishly allows herself to be hurt by the wrong kinds of men. I don’t think the film is driving at a specific message; I feel it’s just revelling in the joy of being dark, but the strong moralitic tone created by the use of Aesop’s fables does clash with the film’s more sadistic side.

There’s nothing particularly original about this film (less so than Repo! anyhow). The aesthetic is the old menace behind a smile, circus freak show sort of vibe, but it is enthusiastically maniacal and lovingly executed. The fact that several of the cast members from Repo! have reappeared in this second foray is always nice to see, even when they all have arguably less to do in this film – but then, the film isn’t even an hour long, so everyone has less to do.

The horror in The Devil’s Carnival is also not as strong as in its predecessor. There are scenes which seem horrific because they are treated in a manner which juxtaposes their unpleasantness; for example suicide is at times treated in quite a light-hearted manner. There is also a scene where a woman is whipped, but contrary to what you would expect from the director of Saw II, III and IV, there is not a single visible drop of blood. Instead of the gore, this film seems to take greater pleasure the spectacle of cheap fairgrounds which have been scaring us all silly since we were very, very small.

It does feel at times as if cast members are in slightly different movies to one another. The film features much loved industrial-rock music goddess Emile Autumn (just listen to the Opheliac album, it is truly sublime), who was apparently pestered to take the part of the Painted Doll by the film’s creators. Autumn’s character doesn’t speak, but delivers one song, ‘Prick! Goes the Scorpion’s tail’ in her usual trademark style. Autumn’s performances essentially echo her stage show. Sean Patrick Flanery at times really ‘goes for it’ emotionally (his performance reminded me of a slightly less successful version of Anthony Head’s performance in Repo), while writer Zdunich plays the devil himself as a calculated, throne-dwelling arch villain. There is an unbalancing swing between on the one hand; anarchic little moments of tongue in cheek horror, cartoonish sound effects and caricature-style costumes which distance us from the central characters – and on the other hand, more dramatic scenes where we are supposed to feel empathy for their surreal situation. All this in an hour made the changing tone a little difficult to keep up with.

The Devil’s Carnival manages to pack in no less than twelve songs, but again the genre and feel of these can vary, so as a viewer you are always on your toes – maybe this is the intention. Sometimes, the cuts and edits of the musical sections, combined with the obvious low budget of the film and the massive time constraints under which it was filmed, can enforce the feel of a hastily put together music video. Personally, I would have liked to see fewer songs, in order that they feel more fully formed; I didn’t think many of them stood up to the Repo soundtrack. My favourite song, ‘In all my dreams I drown’ was in fact cut from the film, but is played in full (including visuals) during the end credits. Even this decision however feels a little odd, as if the clip was shoved into the credits at a random moment and in a rather slapdash positioning on the screen as the credits roll beside it.

At worst; The Devil’s Carnival is a confusing experiment; too short and perhaps a little over-indulgent. At best; it’s brash, brazen and dare I say a little Buffy-esque.

The second instalment of The Devil’s Carnival (‘Alleluia!’) will be a little longer and hopefully will develop some of the characters we have already been introduced to. The cast list is a very interesting read; featuring Adam Pascal (hardly recognisable without the 90s Bon Jovi hair he sports in Rent), Barry Bostwick (infamous as Brad from The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and Ted Neely (most famous for his screaming vocals as Jesus in the 1973 Jesus Christ Superstar). As usual, it seems Terrance Zdunich and Darren Lynn Bousman will manage to widen their fan base with inspired casting choices, and are already managing to cause a certain degree of hype online. What can I say? I want to see it. My only concern is that it might take a very long time for me to get hold of it in the U.K.

Rent

I didn’t like Rent (2005, directed by Chris Columbus) at all when I first saw it. Still, I didn’t really like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest first time round, either, so there’s definitely something wrong with me. Now I love them both. Some of the songs in Rent take a while to learn and it took me a full listen all the way through to be able to re-watch it and realise that I loved the music, I loved the character and I loved the ethos. It’s now a film I’ve seen at least ten times.

If you don’t know anything about Rent, it’s the one which is being in parodied in Team America: World Police (“Everybody has AIDs”). It champions artistic endeavour, sexual difference and a bohemian lifestyle. It was written by Jonathan Larson, who tragically died the night before its first off-Broadway premiere in 1994. It is based very, very vaguely on Puccini’s opera La Boheme, and the original stage show is an opera itself, in that virtually all words are sung, not spoken.

However, this film version makes some deliberate efforts to be less operatic. For example, it opens with Mark speaking, “From now on in I shot without a script…” rather than singing it, as in the stage version. Entire songs, such as “You Okay Honey?” are reduced to nothing but the title, spoken aloud, and a lot of the more dramatic scenes featuring operatic-style exchanges are cut entirely, such as “Goodbye Love”. It’s a shame that these are lost. I also miss the Christmas medley. Chris Columbus’ attempts to make this musical more mainstream (and slightly more palatable for less musical-orientated audiences) are perfectly excusable, but I do know a hardcore fan of Rent who came to the original soundtrack before the film, and simply won’t watch the film again because of the changes made. In fact it’s her version of the DVD I inherited (yay for me!)

Mark often feels like the main character of Rent, and given that his character is a film maker, in this movie version it seems even more as if we are seeing the world through Mark’s eyes; the construction we are watching is clearly a film, plus we can also actually watch the footage which Mark is supposedly filming..

The glossy finish on so many films these days makes some of the grittier aspects of the storyline feel a tad sanitised. This is a world of struggling artists, AIDs sufferers and AZT breaks, of Cat Scratch Clubs and half-empty funeral congregations, of people trying to survive in virtual poverty in NYC, but it still feels very clean to me. However, the benefit of filming Rent is that you can take your audience to actual locations; the cast can wander down real streets, “Santa Fe” can take place on a full scale tube train, the autumnal scene in the graveyard is gorgeous to look at. There are moments, such as where the camera lifts upwards from behind Mimi as she raises her arms during “No Day but Today” which manage to complement the emotional build of the songs perfectly. This is exactly why film versions of musicals should exist; an on-screen director needs to use what a stage director doesn’t have (cameras!) and run with it, in order to produce something different but by no means less. Columbus also creates montages you would only be able to imitate on stage with separate synchronised tableaus; “Without You” covers a lot of ground in the film, including showing Angel’s death in a way which the song “Contact” (unsurprisingly not featured) couldn’t.

All but two members of the cast of the original Broadway production reprise their roles in this film (although arguably they were a little too old to now play these struggling young artists…) Adam Pascal (wannabe rock star Roger), Anthony Rapp (wannabe film-maker Mark), Taye Diggs (Benny, who abandoned his wannabe friends and married into money), Jesse L Martin (computer age philosophy teacher, Collins) Wilson Jermaine Heredia (Angel, Collin’s new found cross-dressing boyfriend) and Idina Menzel (performance artist Maureen) are all reprising their roles from the Original Broadway cast of Rent. The cast’s love for each other is tangible. Although these cast members predominantly have stage experience, they all hold their own in the very different context of a movie. The new editions to the cast fit right in; Rosario Dawson (Mimi, exotic dancer and addict) has an effortlessly beautiful voice and Tracie Thoms (Joanne Jefferson, lawyer and the girl who Maureen left Roger for) impressively holds her own in the vocal cat-fight show-down between Maureen and Joanne during “Take Me Or Leave Me.”

One of the most enjoyable moments in the film is Maureen’s protest. Given that the song combines spoken performance art and singing, it was decided that Idina Menzel would perform this song live in front of the audience gathered for the filming. Here, she shows her killer vocal skills as she performs “Over the Moon”. The ‘real’ audience reaction here helps to replicate the chemistry which Maureen’s performance would encourage from a theatre audience when she invites them to “moo with me.” Idina Menzel has since deservedly achieved star status, thanks to her Frozen performance of “Let it Go”.

The extended set piece of La Vie Boheme, in which the main characters all gather together in the Life Café after Maureen’s protest, is also impressive. It embodies the musical’s message of embracing a bohemian, alternative lifestyle, and finding joy in all of life’s little things.

The film opens with a shot of the cast standing on a stage in an empty auditorium and singing “Seasons of Love” under individual spotlights. The deleted scenes show that at one point this was how Columbus also intended to end the film; everyone but Angel is in line on stage, singing the repeating refrain of “There’s only us, there’s only this/I’d die without you” and Angel joins them, taking up his empty space and they sing the rest of the finale together. While this on-stage way of framing the film breaks the reality, it is paying tribute to the musical’s original on stage incarnation and it’s a nice touch, however the ending Columbus opted for is just as touching.

When you explain what Rent is about to anyone, it sounds miserable beyond belief. Admittedly, the ending is bitter-sweet. There’s rarely a dry eye… on my face… by the end of the film, but it’s affirming to watch; it raises the spirits. It’s about love; friends, lovers, even exes, standing by each other in sickness and in health and seizing the mother-fudging moment.  No Day But Today.

Double Bills: Two Astounding Musical Numbers from 1968

In this week’s blog I’m really zooming in on my area of focus; to two specific musical numbers. Both are from hugely popular musicals released in their movie form in 1968 and both feature more than just catchy songs with fantastic choreography (although they offer that, too). These songs advance plot, they advance character, and they’re full of hidden undercurrents. I can’t choose between them; they’re both too wonderful, but perhaps you have a favourite?

Oliver! (1968) directed by Carol Reed

Oom-Pah-Pah, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart. Performed by Shani Wallis.

At first listen, ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’ is a stirring imitation of a traditional music hall song; nothing more or less, full of bawdy and innuendo. The line, “They all suppose what they want to suppose/When they hear Oom-Pah-Pah” tells the listener that the ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’ of the title has a double meaning; the other verses reveal that ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’ could refer to excessive quantities of drink or sexual misadventures. In addition to this, this suggestion in the lyrics that “they all suppose what they want to suppose” also introduces the idea of seeing or noticing only what you want or expect to see. Originally, in the stage show, this song was used as a crowd pleaser, to open the second act with a good old knees-up. It didn’t take on the crucial role that it now has in the film.

For context; Oliver (Mark Lester) has been abducted from his uncle by Bill Sikes (Nancy’s terrifying and violent criminal boyfriend, played by Oliver Reed) and Bill is now using him as a handy, pocket-sized accomplice in his robberies. At The Three Cripples Pub, Bill is deep in conversation with the leader of a gang of child pick-pockets, Fagin (Ron Moody) as they try to work out their next move. Bullseye, Sikes’ bull terrier, is guarding Oliver.

Nancy, played so well by Shani Wallis, has told Oliver’s uncle, Brownlow, that she will bring the boy to him at London Bridge on the stroke of midnight. It is clear that she dearly wants to get Oliver away from the criminal underworld and back to the family where he belongs, and with these concerns she takes on for the audience the role of a surrogate mother to the orphaned Oliver. Ultimately, it turns out; she sacrifices everything for the boy.

The sequence begins with a mid-length shot of Nancy looking around nervously, her bright red dress and deep purple petticoats offsetting the dark and grainy look of the film. Nancy surveys her surroundings and hears the first few bars of ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’ being sung by revellers in the pub. Slowly, a thought dawns on her; Nancy shares a look with her friend and accomplice Bet (Shelia White) and as the director cuts to a closer shot of her face, she begins to hum along, then starts to sing with growing confidence.

At first, she ruffles Bill’s hair, singing at him and Fagin as they continue on with their conversation. It’s apparent that they’re not paying her a blind bit of notice, so she carries on with her plan. Nancy moves to several tables of drunken miseries and you can begin to see the desperation as she tries and fails to literally drag the men into her dance/diversion.

Bet rushes to help and together, they gradually recruit other pub-goers into their song and dance. All the while, Nancy keeps checking on Oliver, noting his and her positioning in order to choreograph and co-ordinate the ideal escape for them. The way in which Wallis energetically sweeps her arms in an effort stir everyone in the pub to join in the dance clearly captures Nancy’s determination. Additionally, Shani Wallis’ brassy vocals are in moving contrast to the lyrics, as she sings, “She was from the country, but now she’s up a gumtree/She let a fellow beat her, and lead her along/What’s the use of cryin’, she made her bed to lie in/She’s glad to bring a coin in, and join in this song.” We can’t help but be reminded of Nancy’s obvious physical fear of her boyfriend, Bill Sikes. Her character is portrayed as so animated that it is simply tragic to see her brutally laid low only minutes after the end of this sequence.

The counterpoint kicks in, the verse and chorus are sung in unison and the two melodies run in parallel; perhaps further demonstrating the duplicity of Nancy’s act. The “Oom-Pah-Pah’s” climb in pitch and as she leads the line past Oliver, Nancy manages smuggles him out, frantically leading him away from the public house. However, all has been in vain – Bullseye stats barking and Fagin and Sikes look up to realise that Oliver has disappeared.

As the song is ending (coming in at about four and a half minutes of perfection), Sikes’ rage is palpable and he is already running into the gorgeous street set. We hear Fagin begging him, “Careful, Bill, please, no violence.” When Sikes catches Nancy trying to push Oliver up the stairs to run to his Uncle, Bill grabs her and fatally bludgeons her out of view of the audience at the foot of the steps. It’s the act that marks the beginning of the end of the film; Bill is on the run from the police and he now has nothing to lose.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) directed by Ken Hughes

Doll on a Music Box/Truly Scrumptious, music and lyrics by the Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman (The Sherman Brothers)

Performed by Dick Van Dyke and Sally Ann Howes

The music and lyrics of this fantasy classic mark the Sherman brothers’ first non-Disney film project.  It might seem most apt to compare ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’ to ‘Me Ol Bamboo’ – after all, they’re both pastiches of Cockney music hall songs. However, it doesn’t advance the story (or get my heart a-flutter!) in quite the same way as ‘Doll on a Music Box’.

As with Nancy’s performance in Oliver! The ‘Doll on a Music Box’ sequence is written into the plot as a distraction against the story’s villains. Truly Scrumptious, played by Sally Ann Howes and Caractacus Potts, played by Dick Van Dyke, have managed to smuggle themselves into the castle as entertainment for the birthday of Baron Bomburst (portrayed by Gert Frobe of Goldfinger fame).

It’s time to set the scene; Truly and Caractacus are dressed as toys, because the child-like Baron is amused only by toys. Benny Hill – in an engagingly understated performance – plays the toy maker, pretending that he is presenting his new creations to the Baron for his entertainment. Truly and Caractacus must keep up the pretence of being toys in front of the Baron’s court of violet-and-black -clad Vulgarians (typical Roald Dahl creations – the co-writer of the screenplay) while making sure that by the end of the song, they are in a position to a) imprison the Baron and his wife b) storm the castle and c) free Caractacus’ stolen children. Easy.

Truly’s doll is introduced first, encased by mirrors and following prescriptive movements. She sings lyrics which make links between Truly’s upper class upbringing and domineering father, and her doll persona, exclaiming, “What do you see, you people gazing at me? You see a doll on a music box that’s wound by a key.” However she also discloses in her lyrics how she is “yearning… yearning… while I’m turning around and around… Waiting for love’s first kiss.”

Then the container containing Caractacus’ doll persona falls open, and Dick Van Dyke performs a typically admirable set of movements as a sans-strings, marionette-like figure. All the time sporting jokey, over the top facial expressions, he mimes discovery of the ‘Truly’ doll. After a failed attempt to wind her up and get her going (nudge-nudge, wink-wink), he kick-starts her music box. As she starts moving, the glee on his face his apparent and he begins to sing ‘Truly Scrumptious’. Their melodies instantly complement and counterpoint each other. Caractacus’ doll proclaims, “Honest, Truly, you’re the answer to my wishes” while she keeps batting him away with her choreographed movements. The Truly-doll is seemingly unaware of his presence, as if they are not in the same world (or class) as one another.  As Truly vacantly looks around, it seems as if she is singing about “waiting for love” without seeing that it is right in front of her all the time, trying to get her attention.

Dick Van Dyke’s loose, fluid movements during this sequence as he lays his hands on his chest in deference to Truly and runs around in an effort to get her attention are charming and in complete contrast to the staccato way in which Howes moves. Likewise, their singing styles are respectively flowing (for Dick Van Dyke) and clipped (for Truly). These performances, along with the Shermans’ very clever lyrics, stir ideas about not only class differences but also perceptions of gender.

As a character, Caractacus is keen to please his audience and makes a show of being pushed around by Truly, however at one point, he is distracted by his own reflection in the mirror and stops singing, staring at himself as if he realises what he looks like and breaks character. With a group of Vulgarians almost right on top of them and leering at their show – guffawing and adjusting their monocles -Truly, fearful that Caractacus will give the game away, shoves him from behind. After hitting his head and seemingly coming to his senses, he resumes his performance.

As the song draws to a close, the Caractacus doll leans in to kiss Truly’s hand and she pulls her arm away from his kiss at the last second. When he looks up, surprised, her face softens. Coming in at less than three minutes, this sequence is far, far too short for my liking, but the fact that it leaves you wanting so much more is probably part of its longevity. You can watch this sequence again and again because you keep wishing there was more of it.

It’s worth remembering that half of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang doesn’t even really happen within the reality of the film; the Vulgarian section takes place only as part of a story which Caractacus is telling Truly and his children during a trip to the beach. I have always found the fantasy section of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang much more satisfying than the real-world narrative which frames it. However, the stories run parallel; Caractacus is telling the embedded story and it would be nice to think that his character is aware of his use of metaphors, using it perhaps as a part of an elaborate chat-up attempt to woo Truly.