Hedwig and the Angry Inch – 2001 – dir. John Cameron Michael
Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the 2001 motion picture based on the successful off-Broadway musical of the same name, is a rare bird indeed: a stage adaptation that doesn’t fall flat, it has visual verve to spare and feels right at home on the big screen. The colors pop and the music (composed by Stephen Trask) truly rocks. Hedwig is perhaps too wild to be considered a throwback, but there are moments, such as the triumphant sing-along number “Wig in a Box,” when this film gives audiences that same giddy rush that comes from watching the best old Technicolor musicals. It’s one of only a handful of really special movie musicals to come out of the ‘00s, and one of the decade’s most unique films to boot.
Critics and fans at a loss to describe Hedwig often fall back on comparisons to Richard O’Brien’s 1975 midnight perennial The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but one can’t help but feel that the comparison does both films a disservice. Cult cinema fans are constantly hearing claims that the latest odd-duck movie to escape into theaters is “the next Rocky Horror,” or “insert-other-film-title-here meets Rocky Horror,” but the truth is that no movie is likely to spawn the sort of bizarre, love-hate relationship that Rocky Horror fans have with their favorite flick. (Let it be known that anyone attempting to make catcalls at the screen during a showing of Hedwig and the Angry Inch will likely earn a dirty look from me, though singing along with the film is strongly encouraged.)
While it’s true that Hedwig’s glam rock aesthetic is deeply indebted to the same milieu that spawned Rocky – the rise of “cryptohomo rockers” who changed the world by bending their gender in the early seventies – director and star John Cameron Mitchell does more than merely echo Bowie, Bolan, Jobriath, Lou Reed, and yes, that lip-smacking, corseted Tim Curry, with his turn as the title character in Hedwig. For all of the bruised bravado of Tim Curry’s big ballad near the close of Rocky Horror, the fact remains that his character is an alien, and a cannibalistic alien too. Other glam icons traded on similarly otherworldly personas – Ziggy Stardust was from Mars, after all – a tactic that amplified their outsider status but also suggested that their marginalized, complicated, or confused gender and sexuality made them simultaneously more than human and less than human.
By contrast, Mitchell’s Hedwig is powerfully, painfully human. She isn’t an alien looking to corrupt or enlighten a bunch or square Earthlings. She’s just struggling to make sense of herself. It’s true that Hedwig’s situation is extreme: she’s the victim of a botched sex change operation and a child of the Cold War’s divided Berlin. But audiences have so embraced this character because her struggles to accept herself, and to find someone to love, are so universal.
Hedwig uses music – the music that came over her cherished radio as a child, and the music that she makes with her band in the film – as a means of holding together her wildly fractured identity. “The saving power of rock and roll” is a cliché for a reason: rock music remains one of the most powerful outsider art forms ever to puncture the public consciousness, and few films capture that power quite as well as Hedwig does. The aforementioned “Wig in a Box” is a soaring showstopper, “Angry Inch” (a chronicle of that nasty operation) bristles with raw punk energy, and “Midnight Radio” is one of our best-ever songs about, well, songs.
But perhaps “The Origin of Love,” a song based on an excerpt from Plato’s Symposium, best sums up Hedwig’s distinctive appeal. The song tells the story of how humans were once two-headed, four-legged creatures (some male-female, some male-male, and some female-female) before the jealous gods tore them apart and condemned them to spend their lives in a search of their other halves. Accompanied by an endearing animated sequence in the film version, “The Origin of Love” makes it clear that Hedwig’s problems are everyone’s problems, and she isn’t a freak at all. At least, no more than the rest of us. It’s a key moment in a picture that defies categorization or comparison.