The question isn’t “why haven’t you seen Hedwig and the Angry Inch”? No, the real question is why haven’t you bought the DVD, watched the doco, bought the soundtrack, memorised every song on it and staged an amateur performance? Seriously, I’m about halfway through that list, you’d better get cracking.
Hedwig is the tale of a self-identified girly boy who escapes the stifling conservatism of the Eastern Bloc for the stifling conservatism of Middle America. There she meets Tommy, a classic-rock listening Jesus freak with a fish on his truck, and similar yearnings. Fellow Hedheads may note that this review quotes liberally from the source material. This is because no words could live up to those composed by writer/director/performer John Cameron Mitchell and his songwriter Stephen Trask.
Mitchell & Trask birthed Hedwig in a series of drag performances across New York. Their dedication to the character, and her universe, shines through. Case in point: Bilgewater’s Restaurant, apparently the only venue that will take Hedwig. It’s a fictional chain of seafood restaurants with walls covered in B&W murals of sinking ships, and tables populated by families and disappointed couples. With a past-it attitude, striking costumes and a truly awful sense of humour, Hedwig recounts her life story from her spot by the salad bar. She’s right at home, and Mitchell pitches her account at just the right level of absurd pathos. By the closing moments, Hedwig’s narrative is sprawled across the floor in a tangled mess. But who needs narrative when you’ve got a fantastic set of rock songs, cinematography that alternates pleasant kitsch with live-show grime, and a lucid sense of character.
Hedwig’s live performances glue together a comfortably cinematic saga which juggles cell-animation, karaoke subtitles—basically whatever technique suits the moment. It’s all driven by Hedwig’s wanderlust and a healthy dose of genderfuck. In possibly the defining moment of the film, Hedwig, a MTF transsexual played by a cisgender gay man, kisses Yitzhak, an ambiguously male character played by a cisgender woman. Mitchell calls this the film’s token heterosexual kiss, which probably makes sense on some level or another.
As I rave on about the latest transgender, theatre-to-film rock musical, many readers will be reminded of revered classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show. So let me get something straight. Hedwig is better than RHPS. I’m sorry, it just is. If you don’t believe me, look up the song “Angry Inch” on YouTube. Now.
I picked ‘Angry Inch’ because it’s the title song. It’s a magnificent roar of a track which invests genuine pathos in a botched sex-change operation, but it’s not the standout. With tunes like these, standouts come and go. In my maudlin teen years, it was ‘The Origin of Love’. When I left high school, ‘Wicked Little Town’ started to make more sense. Then I got a job and it was ‘Wig in a Box’ in the mornings, ‘Tear Me Down’ when the shift was going well, ‘Exquisite Corpse’ when it really wasn’t, and finally ‘Hedwig’s Lament’ come bedtime. ‘Angry Inch’ is a weekend song, and I might someday live up to ‘Midnight Radio’, the film’s closing number.
Hedwig is a defining film of some kind. It deserves my obsession, and yours.
Directed by John Cameron Mitchell
Written by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask