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CLASSICS: Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

September 25, 2019

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written by: John Cameron Mitchell (book and screenplay), Stephen Trask (book and music)
produced by: Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler, Katie Roumel
directed by: John Cameron Mitchell
rated: R (for sexual content and language)
runtime: 95 min.
release date: August 31, 2001

 

“When it comes to huge openings, a lot of people think of me.”

 

Up front, full disclosure, I am a Hedwig acolyte from the very moment this show entered my circle of awareness. As a theatre arts major in the late 90s, I kept abreast of the latest theatrical developments, and one of the most interesting was John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” a sort of punk-glam-rock-one-(wo)man-and-a-band kind of show. Upon hearing the original cast recording, I was hooked and have forever been a fan of this particular piece.

Mitchell’s 2001 adaptation of the stage show into a film is another animal entirely. In fact, Hedwig has had three major incarnations: First as the experience described above, then as a film that leaned heavily into the glam rock aspects of the musical, and finally a Broadway spectacular fronted by Neil Patrick Harris in full-on punk vamp mode. Of the three, the film has been the definitive version of the story for me as I think Mitchell got everything he wanted to say with this piece out there on film.

 

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To bring you up to speed, the titular band is fronted by Hedwig Robinson (Mitchell) and the band gets its name from the genitalia she was left with after a botched East German sex change operation. It’s a long story, both before and after that incident, but the way that Mitchell and co-writer Trask weave Hedwig’s journey into songs is the reason this is such a revered piece of musical theater. Through adversity, Hedwig became a singer/songwriter, channeling her personal experiences into glam-charged musical numbers that always keep the story moving forward.

Hedwig’s upbringing in Communist East Berlin is one tinged with confusion about his identity, particularly as it pertained to his homeland’s eventual evolution toward democracy and unification. Hedwig’s story is one of halves made whole, poetically being born on the day the Berlin Wall was erected. Named Hansel as a child, he is forever in search of his “other half,” a tale relayed through the beautiful song “The Origin of Love,” itself based on a section of Plato’s “Symposium.”

That’s the brilliant thing about “Hedwig,” it’s music-literate, cine-literate, and has a deep love of drama and theatre baked into its bones. It then regurgitates this through catchy songs, hilariously biting and self-deprecating humor, and a smattering of gorgeous animated sequences thrown in for good measure. It’s truly no wonder that Mitchell went on to become an accomplished filmmaker in his own right. Along with his cinematographer Frank DeMarco, Mitchell has an artist’s eye for composition and his vision is complimented every step of the way by Thérèse DePrez’s production design and Arianne Phillips’ costume design.

 

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As much as “Hedwig” is about identity and discovering who you are. As Hedwig becomes more comfortable in her own skin, she helps a boy named Tommy Speck (Michael Pitt) come into his own despite a strict Christian upbringing. The two become close, but Tommy refuses to accept Hedwig for who she is, just as she begins to think that she’s finally found her other half. He goes off and becomes a famous rock star, singing songs that she wrote, while she languishes in tiny hotel rooms with her entire band. This includes her spouse Yitzhak (Miriam Shor), Hedwig’s backup singer and a woman Hedwig forces to dress as and live her life as a man.

The story has many layers to it, but at its core, it’s about finding out who you are and not searching endlessly for your counterpart. The romantic notion that we’re all meant to be paired with a perfectly complimentary partner is fine, but first you’ve got to love yourself. That’s what “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is peddling, the notion that self-love must come before any sort of romantic love. It’s why it connects with everyone from the transgender people Hedwig represents—as a fully formed, three-dimensional character, I might add—to straight white kids from the suburbs.

More stories could do with protagonists as vulnerable as Hedwig, and more musicals could do with stylistic flourishes Mitchell brings to the table here. But more than anything, more movies could do with a notion as radical as loving yourself. In a time when more and more people are questioning their identities and societal norms and wrestling with all of this stuff, it’s comforting to know that “Hedwig” already made the journey to hell and back, and there’s healing to be found in her story. No matter who you are, or where you are in your own journey, it’s a story worth hearing.

 

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RATING: ****

 

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