Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) begins in Kansas City, Kansas, in a Bilgewater’s franchise restaurant.
Performing before a house of slack-jawed locals is the German chanteuse Hedwig, who with her band The Angry Inch is belting out anthems of anger, loss, and despair.
Resplendent in towering blond wig and butterfly costume, Hedwig (played by writer/director John Cameron Mitchell) is the poster girl for Teutonic ennui. So it gets a big laugh when he/she tells the stunned diners in her best deadpan Marlene Dietrich voice: “Now I’d like to take it down a little.”
Like it's even possible to go down any further.
Based on Mitchell’s cult off-Broadway stage show, Hedwig is bitterly funny, astonishingly musical, and weirdly emotional. It’s a campy romp that you can hum all the way home.
For a first-time director, Mitchell – who has since helmed the sexually explicit Shortbus and the grueling Rabbit Hole (for which Nicole Kidman earned an Oscar nomination) – displays an incredible control of his medium, staging highly cinematic musical numbers and even incorporating passages of animation.
And in Hedwig he has given us one of the oddest characters in recent film.
Between gigs – The Angry Inch is booked into Bilgewater’s all over this great land of ours – we get flashbacks of Hedwig's life. Turns out that our girl came by her angst the hard way.
Born Hansel in Communist East Berlin, she grew up listening to American rock ‘n’ roll. A love affair with a U.S. Army NCO led to a botched sex-change operation (leaving the newly-christened Hedwig with the “angry inch” of the title) and a one-way ticket to the USA – specifically a trailer park near Fort Riley, Kansas.
(Mitchell, an Army brat, actually grew up in the Junction City area and as a teen would flee to Kansas City for a taste of the larger world. All of which makes his observations about life here that much funnier.)
Alas, Hedwig's hubby soon abandons her for a new boy toy. Taking baby-sitting gigs, the faux fraulein makes the acquaintance of Tommy (Michael Pitt), the teen-age son of Fort Riley's base commander. Love blossoms, as does a songwriting collaboration.
But, ever the loser in love, Hedwig sees Tommy run off to become rock star Tommy Gnosis, thanks largely to the songs for which Hedwig has received no credit or compensation. Now our girl is stalking her ex on a mission of love and revenge.
On stage, Hedwig was basically a rock concert. For the film Mitchell opens things up, particularly in his audacious staging of Stephen Trask's superb musical numbers.
Take, for example, “The Origins of Love,” a haunting rocker that, had it been written directly for the screen, would have been a shoo-in for a Best Song Oscar. The lyrics examine Plato's notion that at one time we were two-headed, eight-limbed creatures with the characteristics of both sexes. Split in half by the gods, we are now each of us on a desperate quest to find our other half in order to be complete.
The song has been choreographed to primitive but extremely effective animated images by Emily Hubley, whose work appears throughout the film. In fact, a paradoxical thing happens: While the living, breathing Hedwig is often outrageously campy, the obviously artificial “cartoons” somehow seem quite believable and packed with serious intent.
Mitchell's performance, polished in countless stage appearances, is simply jaw-dropping. Initially, Hedwig seems over the top, a lip-curling drag queen who isn't fooling anybody with the severe makeup that only exaggerates her masculine qualities.
But as the story progresses – or more accurately, as it flashes back – a very disconcerting thing happens. Mitchell’s features seem to soften, the hairstyles become less severe, and before long we accept Hedwig as a genuine woman.
It's a most remarkable transformation, and what's really exciting is that it comes as much from inside Mitchell as from the wardrobe and makeup.
Hedwig’s major flaw, one inherent in the stage version as well, is that Mitchell can't quite figure out how to end his tale. A metaphoric final image – of a naked Hedwig walking resolutely out of an alley and into the shadow and light of the city at night – doesn't quite have the weight to wrap up all the issues and narrative threads the film introduces.
Still, that's a minor drawback when one considers how much Mitchell gets right. Simultaneously funny and bittersweet, outrageous and romantic, Hedwig and the Angry Inch may be the greatest midnight movie since The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.