"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" came out in 2001, the same year as "Moulin Rouge." The latter went on to critical and commercial success and was widely cited as the film that brought about the resurgence of movie musicals. Because the public was fascinated at the prospect of Nicole Kidman and Ewan MacGregor serenading each other with Elton John tunes, "Hedwig" flew under most people's radar. But although its box office was modest, it fortunately developed a cult following à la the "Rocky Horror Picture Show," with "Hed-heads" even dressing up and singing along at midnight screenings.
On the surface, the movie's plot could be construed as campy (like "Rocky Horror..."). But Hedwig's wild tale of how she went from boyhood in East Berlin to being a military wife in Kansas and on to becoming a glam-fabulous "internationally ignored song stylist" (a botched sex change operation left her with an "angry inch") is not merely played for laughs. "Hedwig..." has heart and depth and poignancy, a fact due in no small part to the film's brilliant songs, which make up its narrative core.
Wig in a Box finds an eclectic mix of musicians paying tribute to "Hedwig"; it's a covers album whose proceeds go to the Hetrick-Martin Institute, home of the Harvey Milk School, a high school for gay, lesbian and transgendered youths. Such a worthy cause has engendered an equally worthy album. Fans of the movie who are attached to the film renditions have no cause for concern; none of the songs here are dramatic reworkings of the originals. But almost all of them pop with the same buoyancy and joy, demonstrating that the artists covering the songs are Hed-heads too.
John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, the film's writer/director and musical composer/lyricist, respectively, contribute a new track, the melancholy "Milford Lake"; the song makes one hope these two will collaborate on a new musical down the road. Mitchell's impassioned delivery (he plays Hedwig in the film) of the refrain, "We're gonna drown," sounding as if he is defiantly gulping his last breaths before being sucked under water, is an album highlight.
Rufus Wainwright is well suited to sing the epic "Origin of Love," for he has a theatrical voice similar to the Broadway rock balladry of Mitchell's. His vocals are somewhat laconic, lacking the emotional intensity of the original rendition, but it is still a fine performance. Jonathan Richman's cover of the same song has an off-kilter lounge style that is humorous but slight.
Sleater-Kinney's version of "Angry Inch" (featuring backing vocals from Fred Schneider of The B-52's ) is just as hard and vibrant as the film version, and lead singer Corin Tucker's vocals are appealingly raucous as she brings to life Hedwig's rage and confusion over being left with a "Barbie Doll-crotch."
Yoko Ono (featuring Yo La Tengo), name-checked in a list of iconic female rockers in "Midnight Radio," lets out her notoriously weird howling at the end of "Hedwig's Lament/Exquisite Corpse." But she's surprisingly effective, for her "singing" well serves the tumultuous song that chronicles Hedwig's breakdown. The song also gives the normally placid Yo La Tengo a chance to rock out always a good thing.
The Polyphonic Spree offer an exuberant take on the sing-along "Wig in a Box." It is the rare song that features a classical harp, theremin, piano, flute, guitar, French horn and 11 vocal parts all colliding in gleeful chaos, and is just as much as fun as the original.
The Breeders perform a subdued version of "Wicked Little Town" which contains the delicate fervency of someone seeking release and freedom from small town claustrophobia. Three musical Bens Ben Lee, Ben Kweller and Ben Folds tackle the Tommy Gnosis version of the same song to almost as good effect, imbuing it with a more lively, up-tempo feel.
Cyndi Lauper is an inspired choice to sing "Midnight Radio," a cathartic and uplifting song about finding solace in music and one's self, and her rainbow caterwauling imbues the track with the "tears welling up in your eyes, lift up your hands" sentiment of the original. The Minus 5 (featuring Stephen Trask on keyboards) back her up with melodic rock.
Robyn Hitchcock's contribution of "City of Women," the only other "inspired by" song besides "Milford Lake," sounds so vintage Hitchcockian, featuring his trademark chiming guitars and layered harmonies, that it feels out of place here. "City of Women" seems like it wandered off one of Hitchcock's own albums (such as Perspex Island) and onto this one.
Perhaps the best thing about Wig in a Box is that if you are already a fan of the movie, it will make you to want to see the film again to see its songs in the context where they shine best; likewise, if this album is your introduction to "Hedwig...", it should make you curious about checking out the source material. Because as wonderful as these covers are, there is truly nothing like the renditions performed by Mitchell as Hedwig in his blond-wigged and glitter-red-lipsticked glory, "...spinning like a 45 ballerina/ Dancing to [her] rock 'n' roll."