Follow My Voice: With the Music of Hedwig

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 08/13/07 20:28:16

"Shill in a Box."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

There’s a self-serving shallowness to the clumsily titled “Follow My Voice: With the Music of Hedwig” that no amount of tender realism can erase. The documentary, from first-time filmmaker and longtime veteran of gay-themed televsion Katherine Linton, aims to promote a “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” charity tribute album while simultaneously providing us with a glimpse of New York’s Hetrick-Martin Institute, which the album aims to benefit. The result is one part lightweight commercial and one part lighter-weight peek at the lives of a few of the youths whose lives were changed for the better by the Institute.

It’s a cluttered mix, these two themes, and Linton’s construction leads us to ridiculous juxtapositions throughout: one minute we’re listening to a teen tell a heartbreaking story about being banished from her home, the next we’re watching the album’s producer say how excited he was to get Ben Folds to pitch in. Doesn’t quite have the same weight.

And while some of the behind-the-scenes recording sessions are fantastic stuff (Tim DeLaughter may grate during interview segments, but his Polyphonic Spree version of “Wig in a Box” is phenomenal), it all plays out like a cheap fluff piece, the sort of thing that might pop up as a quickie extra on the DVD side of a DualDisc. Linton rushes us through the good stuff (there’s not enough Rufus Wainright, for example), trips over herself trying to hide the missing footage (we see Cyndi Lauper’s backing band perform, while Lauper herself is never shown onscreen), and lingers far too long on the parts nobody wants to see in the first place (much is made of Yoko Ono’s guest appearance, although it turns out sounding exactly as awful as one would expect from a Yoko Ono guest appearance). The movie ends with a big release party for the CD, and everyone’s all happy about it, and it’s almost as if the movie wants to tell us, “Oh, those troubled teens? Whatever. You wanna buy this CD! It totally rocks!”

(A squirmingly uncomfortable scene comes early, when “Hedwig” co-creator John Cameron Mitchell comes to the school to tell of their plans for the charity event, only to discover that many of the kids have never heard of either the play or the film. Mitchell then must deliver a sales pitch of sorts to get the teens interested in it. Awkward!)

When the movie focuses on those troubled teens, we almost reach a workable amount of depth. All of them have incredibly touching stories to tell - a male-to-female transgendered student’s stepdad threw out all her “girl” clothes; a lesbian was excommunicated from her Jehovah’s Witness church and has not seen her siblings since. But unlike other projects of this same sort, “Follow My Voice” doesn’t get deep enough into their tales. They’re like extras in an ad for the album, and not the main attraction they deserve to be.

The film also shows some bizarre choices in picking which kids to follow. One of them is a moderately popular fashion model who flies to Paris regularly and is on her way to becoming a brighter star. For a film purporting to be about youths struggling to just make it through the worst years of their lives, what’s the supermodel doing here?

But “Follow My Voice” fails mostly not for what’s in it, but what’s been left out. Linton praises the Hetrick-Martin Institute and the Harvey Milk School it hosts, but refuses to provide any real detail about it. We learn that it’s a school and a sanctuary for queer youths in danger, but that’s it. There’s no history about the school, no rundown of the services it provides, no real explanation why we should be following the kids here, instead of, say, gay kids stuck in Middle America. Of course both the Institute and the school are great causes, and of course they deserve to be celebrated. But Linton fails to properly do just that.

Worse of all, she finds herself filming this project right in the middle of the Harvey Milk School’s biggest controversy: in 2003, the school went public, unleashing a barrage of protests against its seemingly exclusionary practices (contrary to reports at the time, the school is actually open to kids of all orientations, including straight), with counter-protests from the school’s many supporters. While this turn of events is used to construct a climax of sorts for the movie’s story, there’s never any proper discussion of it anywhere. The few facts we do get about it are the blink-and-miss-it variety. Why not take the time to explain what’s going on here? Why not study the debate?

By ignoring any usable facts and going straight for an almost sound bite-ready emotional angle, “Follow My Voice” becomes purely manipulative. Linton is using the film not to support the school or its students but to support an album. It’s a crummy commercial poorly disguising itself as social commentary.

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