Originally appearing as an off-Broadway alternative to the overly sincere Rent, Hedwig and The Angry Inch feels like a musical ahead of its time.
Adapted, directed and starring the musical’s creator John Cameron Mitchell, Hedwig and The Angry Inch is the emotional genderbending musical about self-identity and finding yourself in a society that doesn’t necessarily want you.
Mitchell reprises his role as Hedwig, created with composer-lyricist Stephen Trask as a New York concert-club persona, an “intentionally ignored” singer. The gender blurring rock star is on a tour of Bligewaters Restaurant Chain which her band The Angry Inch, which includes Hedwig’s gender-blurry husband (Miriam Shor who currently stars in TV’s Younger). In the shadow of their tour is grunge superstar Tommy Gnosis (Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Pitt), a famous singer who Hedwig claims she “taught everything he knows,” with no credit in return.
The glitter clad lead bares her soul through a number of powerful songs that blend punk rock and power ballads with musical theatre. Born in1961 as Hansel, the year the Berlin Wall went up, Hedwig tells her story which includes a soldier dad, a GI sugar daddy and a sex-change operation. It’s dark, it’s romantic, it’s satirical, blending the tones together seamlessly.
Escaping the Eastern Bloc, Hansel-turned-Hedwig finds that life in the US is no more exciting than the dreary Europe of their youth. Hedwig’s career as a songwriter flounders until she acquires a 17-year-old prodigy, Tommy, a Jesus brat who needs a mother as much as they need a lover. When their relationship gets to the next level, Tommy discovers the angry inch left in Hedwig’s pants, a result of botched gender surgery. He soon leaves Hedwig, taking her personal songs with him. Hedwig’s tour just happens to be travelling to all the same cities as her former lover and her one goal in life is to confront him about his betrayal, much to her manager’s (Andrea Martin) dismay.
The onstage scenes are fun, emotive and smartly conceptual but the use of acted-out flashbacks often distract from the emotive vocal performance. Mitchell’s emotion bleeds through the lyrics, the additional imagery feels unnecessary. The flashbacks of Hedwig’s childhood work better when told as anecdotes then shown in flashback vignette form. When Hedwig isn’t performing you miss her presence, voice and show(wo)manship. Mitchell’s stage presence is only heightened by the small series of dingy seafood restaurant his frontwoman performs in. This film dips in quality when not on stage, cold and limp when scenes are played straight, the low budget, inexperienced quality of the film especially noticeable.
Hedwig And The Angry Inch is a surprisingly funny film despite its genre and topic. Through all the boisterous punk rock songs and lingering tragedy of trying to find a belonging in society, there is a snide sense of humour and real laugh out loud moments. The songs are great, a riff on Lou Reed, Velvet Underground and David Bowie with echoes of the late 90’s genderbending of Placebo and Green Day’s energetic punk-pop.
Released in 2001, the film ahead of its time in its gender politics. 18 years later the identity politics feel unique and fresh. Hedwig isn’t only dealing with identity on a sexual or gender level, he is searching for professional identity, a nationality, a place in society. Hedwig is stateless, genderless and unsuccessful in her music career. This film’s narrative is entirely built around its depiction of nonbinary gender norms yet it isn’t presented with any political passion, loudness or social argument. Gender and all the complication that comes with it are just another unexceptional layer in Hedwig’s exceptional life. Very few films, let alone musicals have mastered this.
Mitchell is extraordinary as the vibrant, tragic and witty Hedwig, never losing the DIY punk sensibilities of the stage show. Pulling from an endless supply of glitzy home-made glam rock meets grunge outfits and blonde wigs, Hedwig performs with ostentatious punk energy whether she’s performing on stage or on a suburban chain restaurant table. There is a naturality to the performance, aided by the decision to record the songs live (except when Stephen Trask dubs Pitt’s singing voice), that feels unrehearsed and raw. This is arguably one of the best, and most underrated, musical performances of the 21st century.
The ending plays like a highly stylised fever dream that doesn’t quite work as cohesively as the rest of the film, leaving the audience feeling a little deflated after a once defiant high. The message is one of positivity and hope, a rare occurrence where queer cinema is concerned. Luckily the previous acts are so strong you almost don’t care about the lacklustre ending, you’ll be too busy humming ‘Sugar Daddy’ anyway.
Part love story, part comedy, part tragedy and 100% raucous musical Hedwig and The Angry Inch is a cult musical masterpiece. Mitchell’s confident lead performance tenderly displays the layers of pain and love, and our endless search for a soulmate who can put us back together.
This Blu-ray release has more than enough extras. In an audio commentary recorded in 2001, John Cameron Mitchell and cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco cover everything from the character’s birth to the film’s development.
There is a feature-length documentary that offers a deep behind the scenes glimpse of John Cameron Mitchell’s process from live performances in clubs to the off-Broadway production and then Hedwig’s trip onto the big screen. Many of these scenes are raw, unedited home footage, but it’s only fitting for a film with such DIY punk ethics.
An archival mini featurette offers a more personal take on the film’s production from the director, makeup artist and costume designer. They scour through their personal archives and talk about what inspired and led them to their creative choices on the film.
Last is a 30-minute conversation between music critic David Fricke and composer-lyricist Stephen Trask about the film’s varied musical styles. Additional extras also include optional commentary, deleted scenes, an essay by film critic Stephanie Zacharek and a reunion between the cast and crew.
Hedwig and The Angry Inch will be available on Blu-ray from July 22
Drama, Music | USA, 2001 | 15 | Criterion Collection / Sony Pictures RHE | 22nd July 2019 | Dir.John Cameron Mitchell | John Cameron Mitchell, Miriam Shor, Stephen Trask