The New York writer/actor/director, typically cast as the "slightly marginal type," becomes the most marginal creation of all in the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which opens Aug. 3.
The film flashes from Hedwig and his posse of Eastern Bloc refugees, "the Angry Inch," playing outrageous seafood restaurant and ice cream parlor gigs to his nightmarish/magical coming of age. Land mines of glamour explode in the most incongruously bland locales as the lyricism of the Angry Inch's music charts Hedwig's search for fulfillment in a lover's arms.
It is no easy feat to combine genuine pathos with ass-length Farrah hair and lips that glitter like Dorothy's ruby red slippers, but Mitchell pulls it off amidst his extraordinarily full-throttle lunacy.
Mitchell first began developing Hedwig as part of a punk-rock drag night at a New York club, then morphed the character into an off-Broadway cult musical penned by himself and songwriter Stephen Trask. The show has mutated yet again into a film from indie vanguard Christine Vachon's Killer Films.
Like other Killer efforts -- Velvet Goldmine, Boys Don't Cry, Safe -- Hedwig is concerned with the fractured, split sense of identity plaguing a fair share of postmillennial folk.
For Mitchell, there is a strong shared current between films like Hedwig and a film like Todd Haynes' Safe, which "isn't specifically gender or sexually oriented but is definitely about someone coming to terms with a world that they felt they don't fit into," he says.
A marvelously audacious, tender treatment of the life and times of a kid born on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall to a Commie mom, Hedwig is universal in one small regard: its treatment of the common teenage flight from abysmal reality to a life, in the immortal words of Lou Reed, "saved by rock 'n' roll."
Weaned on Reed and Iggy Pop, Hedwig is offered the chance for an actual escape in the form of a black G.I., Luther Robinson (Maurice Dean Wint). With a ravenously creepy grin, Luther encourages Hedwig to remake himself as a girl-thing. "You got to leave something behind," Luther extols, and Hedwig does. After a botched sex change operation, Hedwig is left with that titular "angry inch" and a gaping hole in his psyche.
Like some tabloid mutation of an abused wife and a Brothers Grimm heroine left in the forest, Hedwig is soon abandoned stateside by Luther, deposited in a Kansas trailer park with nothing but his wigs, his wits and a head full of glitter rock. Perpetually re-created by love, Hedwig falls for the teenage son of an Army general, a pudgy, sexy kid he helps craft into a stadium-packing goth rocker named Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt).
Modeled on a strain of grotesque children's stories and the fairy tale-surreal ambience of '60s and '70s rock operas, Hedwig is a blur of subconscious mire and darkness, of molestation and messy surgeries, abandonment and sexual predators overlaid with carnivalesque song and dance to spackle over the pock marks. Like the bag of fat, rainbow-hued Gummy Bears Luther uses to lure Hedwig from his land of khaki East German confections, Hedwig is about the transformation via music and imagination of a drab middle-American wasteland into a peacock-colored, self-willed paradise.
"I was kind of a mess before I got into acting. It really was some kind of a sacred space to work things out in a communicative way ... it allowed me to get parts of myself out that I'd be afraid to get out in other ways," Mitchell says of his own transformation via acting.
In some ways, Hedwig is the kind of inspiration and call to arms for the addled teen consciousness Mitchell might have flocked to as an Army brat growing up in Kansas if he hadn't been "too scared because it would have marked me as a freak and a fag."
"I'd really love it to be seen by someone like me when I was 14 to just kind of broaden things and make things seem more possible that are out of the mainstream."