The Punk Rock Musical ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ Tears Up the Criterion Collection

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Hedwig and the Angry Inch

There’s this mistaken notion that comes in youth that you will remain stuck in your ways, that what you want and what you like will always remain so. As you get older you realize just how mistaken that notion really is, and I find myself confronting my own errors in judgement from the past. In the summer of 2001, the rock ‘n’ roll musical from writer-director-star John Cameron Mitchell, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, made the transition from off-Broadway to the silver screen and I rushed to the theater hoping for a movie that spoke to my own sensibilities as a fan of early ‘70s glam rock and late ‘70s punk rock. But I left the theater unimpressed. I stayed steadfast in my disapproval of Hedwig and the Angry Inch for years until the film was reissued by the Criterion Collection. Revisiting the film for the first time since theaters I realized just how mistaken I was, and that Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a funny, rockin’, and thoughtful work of cinema, ahead of the curve on LGBTQ issues without ever losing its punk rock spirit.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the story of Hansel a young man (played by John Cameron Mitchell) raised in the divided city of Berlin during the Cold War, growing up on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall. It’s there that young Hansel meets Sgt. Luther Robinson (Maurice Dean Wint) who becomes infatuated with the young man, offering to take him to America and be his sugar daddy. However, in order to do this Hansel must transition into Hedwig. But the operation goes awry and Hedwig is left with “a one-inch mound of flesh.” Having now settled down in Kansas, Hedwig’s marriage doesn’t last long as Sgt. Robinson leaves his transitioned bride for another young man. Shortly after, Hedwig meets young Tommy (Michael Pitt), a Jesus freak teenager unsure of himself. Soon the two collaborate on songs and Hedwig dubs him Tommy Gnosis, but Tommy steals their music and leaves Hedwig behind on his way to becoming the world’s biggest rock star. That leaves Hedwig jilted, and she follow’s Tommy’s band from city to city with her own band entitle Hedwig and the Angry Inch where he’s joined on stage with Yitzhak (Miriam Shor), a trans man and backup singer. With their trusty manager Phyllis (Andrea Martin), Hedwig and the Angry Inch are out to make raucous noise and hopefully rectify the rock ‘n’ roll wrong done to their leading lady.

John Cameron Mitchell’s film doesn’t unfold in a linear fashion. The first scene of the film is Hedwig and the band rocking out at some scarcely populated restaurant, a rambunctious performance that aggressively taunts the mainly elderly and conservative audience. We’re given a glimpse of a jilted trans woman, one whose dreams of rock stardom have been stolen. It’s then that the film slowly pulls back the curtain on Hedwig’s tragic story and botched transformation, at once building depth to the character and imploring the audience to empathize with this soul trying to find their place in a divided and confusing world. And yet throughout everything Hedwig clings to the anger of the past, which leads to complications in her relationship with her manager, bandmates, and especially Yitzhak. At a time when trans people weren’t being taken seriously, pushed to the margins of society, John Cameron Mitchell created a nuanced character that challenged the audiences’ own pre-conceived notions about the transgendered community, never making Hedwig nor her botched operation the butt of the joke.

As a musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch simply rocks. Songs like “Tear Me Down”,  “Angry Inch”, and “Wig in a Box” are sheer rockers with blistering guitar and lyrics that ooze angst. Other songs like “The Origin of Love” and “Wicked Little Town” are more downbeat numbers but magnificent compositions nonetheless. The songs do what any great musical should, they work in unison with the storytelling to further flesh out the characters and story. The songs written by Stephen Trask and performed by John Cameron Mitchell inject the film with its rebellious punk rock sprit, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü playing on the songs. So often movies have songs that are supposed to be big rock ‘n’ roll hits that are bland and generic, making you wonder why such a bad song would be a hit. That’s never the case in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

The Criterion Collection edition of Hedwig and the Angry Inch boasts a number of special features, including a new 4K transfer of the film and a 2001 audio commentary with John Cameron Mitchell and cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco. There’s also a 2003 documentary on the development and making of the film as well as deleted scenes with audio commentary. There are new interviews with John Cameron Mitchell and the cast and crew of the film as well as a conversation between composer Stephen Trask and rock critic David Fricke. All of which comes in a deluxe, gorgeously designed package with a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Stephanie Zacharek.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch takes its rightful place in the Criterion Collection as a one-of-a-kind rock ‘n’ roll musical. I’ll forever be haunted by my own youthful dismissal of a movie that is hilarious, totally rocks, and is so ahead of the times when it came to LGTBQ issues. There’s also something tragic about the fact that the film was produced by Fine Line Features, the independent wing of New Line Cinema, which has since been shuttered in the ever-shrinking corporate media world. There aren’t many studios willing to back daring, low budget fare geared for open-minded adults let alone one that could get nationwide theatrical distribution. Despite the troubling realities of the movie business in 2019, Hedwig and the Angry Inch will live on for years to come thanks to its inclusion in the illustrious Criterion Collection.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch
  • Overall Score
5

Summary

The classic Hedwig and the Angry Inch lands in the Criterion Collection with a new edition that boasts an array of special features dedicated to John Cameron Mitchell’s one-of-a-kind punk rock musical.

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