Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

criterion logoAdapted from the critically acclaimed off-Broadway hit, John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch tells the story of an “internationally ignored” rock singer and her search for stardom and love.  Born an East German boy named Hansel, Hedwig marries an American G.I. to get over the Berlin Wall to freedom and suffers a botched sex-change operation in the process that leaves her with just a one-inch mound of flesh.  Finding herself high, dry, and divorced in a Kansas trailer park, Hedwig pushes on to form a rock band and encounters a lover/protegé in Tommy Gnosis, a young Christian army brat who eventually leaves her, stealing her songs to become a huge rock star.  Left to stalk Tommy’s stadium tour with her group, the Angry Inch, Hedwig crisscrosses America intent on exposing Gnosis and claiming her rightful position in the pantheon of rock icons.

Disc Features:

  • New, restored 2K digital transfer, supervised by director John Cameron Mitchell and cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Audio commentary featuring Mitchell and DeMarco
  • Deleted scenes with optional commentary
  • Whether You Like It or Not: The Story of Hedwig, a feature-length documentary on the musical and the film
  • I am Hedwig, new interviews on with Mitchell, Neil Patrick Harris, Andrew Rannells, Michael C. Hall, Darren Criss, and Taye Diggs, the stars of Hedwig‘s Broadway productions
  • Follow My Voice: With the Music of Hedwig, Katherine Linton’s documentary on the lives of four students attending the Harvey Milk School for LGBTQ youth and the recording of Wig in a Box, a tribute album raising funds for the institute operating the school
  • Anatomy of a Scene, a making of featurette on the adaptation of the musical at the Sundance Institute
  • New video appreciation by critic Kim Morgan
  • Theatrical trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek

From tiny acorns do mighty oaks grow.  Who could have predicted the cultural juggernaut that would have been born from a one-inch mound of flesh, the remnant of a botched sex-change operation endured by a fictional, East German, genderqueer rock star?  At the time John Cameron Mitchell’s film adaptation came out, Hedwig and the Angry Inch had been transformed from a chance meeting between him and musician/songwriter Stephen Trask and a theatre-piece work-shopped at a drag-punk club called Squeezebox into an award-winning, Off-Broadway, cult musical that ran for over 2 years and for 857 performances.  Productions of the musical outside of New York began appearing around the time of the film’s debut in 2001, and it’s fair to say that the film, a darling at Sundance and a prize-winner there also, spread the word and encouraged further productions of the stage show globally.  With the debut of the musical on Broadway in 2014 with Neil Patrick Harris as its star, with prolific actors assuming the titular role thereafter (Andrew Rannells, Michael C. Hall, Darren Criss, and Taye Diggs), and with multiple Tony awards won and performances from the show appearing on prime time basic cable programming, Hedwig and the Angry Inch seems to have broken through into the mainstream, and the stage production seems to have established its primacy over its 2001 film version once again.  A decade and a half later, Cameron’s 2001 film is ripe for rediscovery and with no high-definition edition out on hard media, it’s a title crying out for the Criterion Collection treatment.

Is it wrong to assume that Hedwig’s story has become ubiquitous?  If so, let’s offer a slightly expanded synopsis from the one described above.  Mitchell’s film follows the titular Hedwig (played, once again, by Mitchell) and her band, The Angry Inch, as they shadow the tour of newly crowned rock-icon Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt).  While Tommy plays sold-out arenas and stadiums, Hedwig is booked into various Bilgewaters (a tacky seafood chain restaurant where The Inch perform … sometimes behind poorly located salad bars) where her raucous, in-your-face shows, backed by her ill-defined, Eastern European band, are barely tolerated by family diners ill-prepared for the experience.  Against the backdrop of the tour, Hedwig’s autobiographical songs tell her story – her strained childhood in East Berlin and her fascination with American rock music, her homosexual relationship with an American G.I. (Maurice Dean Wint) and the botched sex-change operation she underwent to marry and flee East Germany to the United States, her abandonment in a Junction City, Kansas, trailer park and the start of her musical career, her romantic relationship with and rock mentorship of Christian army brat Tommy Speck, and her abandonment by Speck with their songs to become a musical superstar under the name bestowed on Speck by Hedwig – Tommy Gnosis.

The film organizes itself around a series of dualities that Hedwig finds herself trapped in-between.  They are announced in the opening song “Tear Me Down” as “East and West/Slavery and freedom/Man and woman/Top and bottom.”  This preoccupation with division is found the film’s central song “The Origin of Love,” the Plato’s Symposium-inspired tale of mankind divided by the gods and compelled to couple to return to their natural state.  Hedwig chases the promise of wholeness denied in Sgt. Luther, Tommy, and her drag king husband Yitzhak (Miriam Shor), but remains still feeling incomplete and uncertain about what her other half might be.  Hedwig and the Angry Inch was originally imagined as a kind of romantic tale, paying comparable attention to Tommy, but as Mitchell and Trask developed the story, they came to recognize it as being fundamentally about Hedwig’s arc and her capacity to conceive of herself as complete by her own standard.

We can further add some more oppositions key to Hedwig and the Angry Inch – gay and straight, teacher and student, lover and loved, escape and abandonment, success and failure – but the success of the film is founded in a key opposition relevant to both rock music and gender – performance and authenticity.  Rock has always valued the rebellious, iconoclastic spirit of the music and struggled with the reality that it is, at best, self-consciously mediated by its performers and, at worst, altogether constructed.  Questions of gender and sexuality are similarly complicated among competing ideas of essentialism and constructivism.  Hedwig’s voyage toward personhood, toward her own particular brand of self-actualization, occur both socially and artistically at the same time.  Mitchell has been careful to point out that Hedwig is not a trans-woman, but an altogether different gender that is neither male nor female, and Hedwig’s achievement as an artist and as a human is won not merely by letting go of the judgments and strictures she places on others (on Tommy as a lover and as a betrayer, on Yitzhak as a subordinate and as her heteronormative counterpart) but on herself, tearing down the edifice of Hedwig to emerge naked and reborn by the film’s conclusion.

Hedwig is generally identified by its first third, before the glam make-up façade is peeled away and the gravity of Hedwig’s spiritual wounds are truly understood.  Mitchell establishes in this opening section his “internationally ignored” rock star as a captivating force, full of a self-importance that reads partly as self-deprecation, yet always having le mot juste hilariously on hand.  The film’s eminent quotability stands out, as Hedwig proclaims some of our favourite lines:

  • “When it comes to huge openings, a lot of people think of me.”
  • “Ladies and gentlemen, do you like the pelt?  Be honest, because some bitch stopped me on the way in.  ‘What poor unfortunate creature had to die for you to wear that?’  My Aunt Trudy I replied.”
  • “Late at night, I would listen to the voices of the American Masters – Tony Tennille, Debby Boone, Anne Murray, who was actually a Canadian working in the American idiom.  And then there were the crypto-homo rockers – Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, who was actually an idiom working in America and Canada.”
  • “When I think of all the people I’ve come upon in my travels, I cannot help but think of the people who have come upon me.”
  • “I scraped by with baby-sitting gigs and odd jobs – mostly the jobs they call blow.”
  • “So if any of you out there are looking for the song that’s going to be your big hit, you should pay attention, because we’re talking to Phil Collins’ people.  But then again … aren’t we all?”

Festooned in grandiose blonde wigs and flea market glitz, Hedwig is a glam underdog further supported by a shockingly credible rock score.  The rock musical is a hard genre to plausibly pull off, but Stephen Trask (of the band Cheater and appearing in the film as one of Hedwig’s guitarists) brings a true punk sensibility to the film, ably jumping genres to tell Hedwig’s story.  A listen to the Hedwig charity album, Wig in a Box, reveals Trask’s musical achievement as a canonical list of rock musicians including Frank Black, Sleater-Kinney, Spoon, and The Breeders cover each track with inviolable authority.  Trask’s soundtrack ably paces the film with alternating rhythms, initially swaying from strutting grandeur (“Tear Me Down”) to sincere musicianship (“The Origin of Love”) to winking comedy (“Sugar Daddy”) to manic aggression (“Angry Inch’), then settling into an elegiac tone of loss (“Wicked Little Town”) before Hedwig’s final destruction (“Exquisite Corpse”) and rebirth (“Midnight Radio”).  Hedwig’s claim of authenticity is rooted in the credibility of these songs, sonic markers of his life’s journey leading to “Midnight Radio” which calls out like an aural lighthouse marking the way of hope through the storms of betrayal and despair.  By its conclusion, Hedwig and the Angry Inch transcends the easy definitions of love and gender with anthemic rock power, rallying a cry for all the “misfits and losers” who fail to find acceptance and love and are left to look inward for solace.

Mlle Hedwig by juliensaneHedwig and the Angry Inch deftly blends comedy and tragedy with a stellar soundtrack and a welcome supporting appearance by Andrea Martin as Hedwig’s manager.  With Mitchell’s musical once again winning awards and receiving laudatory reviews, this time for its recent Broadway production, now is the perfect time for Hedwig’s celluloid translation to be rediscovered.  It’s hard to believe the film is now 15 years old.  While the DVD still circulates, it technically seems to be out of print and direly needs a release in high-definition.  The Criterion Collection could do wonders with the film, restore an array of excellent features from the previous DVD, include related documentaries also out of print, and develop new features to celebrate this modern cult masterpiece.  It’s hard to argue against that poster art of a glittering Hedwig belting it out in close-up, but we see Hedwig’s admiration for Lou Reed and David Bowie as inspiring a pop art cover treatment, much like this Warhol-esque image by Deviant Artist Eli (JulienSane).

Credits: With the recent SCOTUS decision on gay marriage in the US and the deserved celebration across the internets that followed, we thought this would be a good opportunity to celebrate one of our all time favourite films, queer or not.  If that means we’ve come to the party a little late, so be it.

Our imagined Criterion Collection edition of Hedwig and the Angry Inch ports over the commentary, deleted scenes, trailer, and documentary from the original DVD.  The documentary, Whether You Like It or Not, is notable for providing an excellent overview of the musical’s genesis, its Off-Broadway run at the Jane Theatre, and its cinematic adaptation.  Follow My Voice is an actual feature-length documentary, however its DVD from Wolfe Video DVD is now out of print.  The I am Hedwig feature is an imagined series of interviews designed to capitalize on the success of the Broadway production and the profile of the actors who have played Hedwig there, as well as to provide some differing assessments of the eponymous character from those offered by Mitchell and Trask.  Both Kim Morgan and Stephanie Zacharek were strong supporters of the film and because they are both friends of the Collection, we’ve tapped them respectively for a video appreciation and a booklet essay.


5 thoughts on “Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)

  1. glaza siniy June 1, 2016 / 5:30 pm

    this slip of a girlie boy from communist east berlin…….

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