17th Jul2019

‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: John Cameron Mitchell, Andrea Martin, Michael Pitt, Stephen Trask, Miriam Shor | Written by John Cameron Mitchell, based on the musical by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask | Directed by John Cameron Mitchell

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Born a boy in East Berlin, Hansel Schmidt (writer-director John Cameron Mitchell) was raised by a German mother and an American father. Thus began his obsession with rock music – particularly the gender-malleable antics of artists like David Bowie, for whom of course Berlin was no stranger. Despite his mother’s attempts to restrict Hansel’s musical performance urges (she insists he practice singing with his head in the oven) and lead an ordinary life, he ends up falling for a black, male American GI and he decides to become a woman named Hedwig. The “Angry Inch” is the result of Hedwig’s botched operation, and before she knows it she’s divorced in a trailer park in Kansas.

All this formative madness is told in flashback – it’s backstory to the main plot, which concerns Hedwig and his band touring the bars and cafes (mostly cafes) in rural Middle America, chasing the conspicuously more successful musician Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt). They’re pursuing Tommy because, according to Hedwig, he stole her songs while they were dating. However, given Hedwig’s penchant for hyperbole – her potentially unreliable narration – can her story be trusted? Could this not simply be a case of showbiz jealousy?

Based on Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s late-90s stage play, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a musical “dramedy” with an appealing, and at times infuriating, non-binary protagonist at its core. It is all about Hedwig, to the point where what we see may or may not be a figment of her imagination. The songs range from pleasingly melodic, Elton John-style ballads to great, growling, Bowie-esque anthems. Indeed, the film could be seen as a partner piece to Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, although I also feel it has some of the tragic, ambiguous weirdness of Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise.

In one sense Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a lament to the musical mould-breakers of the late 60s and beyond. The swagger is there; the ego is there; the songs are there. So where is the fame for Hedwig? It could be that Hedwig is simply too authentic. She’s not cross-dressing. She never takes off the makeup and plays at being a boy backstage. This is not an alter ego, it’s her ego. While the world laps up a dude in a fabulous gown and heels, there is the implicit knowledge that it’s theatre. Hedwig is living this life. This is truly her. That’s what’s sad about her story: the growing realisation that her heroes’ success was based on make-believe.

It makes her bitter. Hedwig’s cruelty is born of a fear of abandonment – both physical and ideological – and one of the main ways she deals with this is to make herself conspicuously visible. But visibility comes at a price. Hedwig believes that Tommy could never love her because of her lack of binary genitalia. It’s a brutally honest film at times, offering a fascinatingly ambiguous perspective of a life lived in a binary world. Yet however honest and however naked Hedwig makes herself, is anyone really interested in the truth of her? Maybe she’s nothing but a pantomime dame in their eyes.

There’s a universality to this aspect of the story: the desire to be known. And there is also the universal need for control, as well as our ambivalence about our bodies: a need to be touched and understood, albeit tempered by our sense of privacy and shame. For someone who gives so much away, both in music and in monologues, Hedwig is violently protective of her body. It’s her shame at her “Barbie bump” that pushes Tommy away.

Bringing the themes right up to date, there is the parallel with the modern YouTuber, or “influencer”: the illusion of authenticity and the power of alleged honesty. Hedwig’s mother advises that, given that absolute power corrupts absolutely, it’s better to be powerless. Maybe what she really means is exposing yourself, making yourself known, opens you up to attack, makes you vulnerable. What power the influencers wield through their nakedness – and what vicious scrutiny they invoke.

John Cameron Mitchell and his crew always keep things aesthetically alive and interesting. Sometimes the camera will spin 360 degrees; sometimes the editing will juxtapose images jarringly; and sometimes a strange sound will desecrate the image, like in one scene when we hear a whistling bomb sound instead of dialogue. It always feels like we’re inside Hedwig’s headspace, thrilling and unpredictable and oppressive as it is.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the howling post-set feedback from the 90s indie explosion. It flopped on release. I wonder what will be made of it now, in an age when trans concerns (Hedwig is not trans, but non-binary) are arguably more recognised, more praised and more criticised. Hopefully its already considerable cult audience expands with this timely Criterion release.

DIRECTOR-APPROVED SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES:

  • New 4K digital restoration, supervised by director John Cameron Mitchell and cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack
  • Audio commentary from 2001 featuring Mitchell and DeMarco
  • New conversation among members of the cast and crew
  • New conversation between composer and lyricist Stephen Trask and rock critic David Fricke about the film’s soundtrack
  • Documentary from 2003 tracing the development of the project
  • Close look at the film’s Adam and Eve sequence
  • New programmes exploring Hedwig’s creation, look and legacy through its memorabilia
  • Deleted scenes with commentary by Mitchell and DeMarco
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek, portraits of Hedwig by photographer Mick Rock, along with, illustrations by animator Emily Hubley, and excerpts from two texts that inspired the film: Plato’s Symposium and The Gospel of Thomas.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is out now on Criterion Blu-ray.

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