Hedwig and the Angry inch is a filmed interpretation of a cult genderqueer rock musical (what a mouthful!) The script was written by John Cameron Mitchell, who also directs the film with an amazing attention to detail and plays Hedwig with all the dedication and perfection of someone who was present at the character’s birth. The music and lyrics, which are immediately catchy but also improve and mature each time you hear them, are written by Stephen Trask (who also plays the part of band member Skszp.)
Hansel (later Hedwig) is an East German. He was born male but is now suffering from an “angry inch” where his manhood used to be after a botched sex change operation performed so he could escape the wrong side of the Berlin Wall as someone’s wife. Hence the title of the movie. After taking on his mother’s first name, marrying and making it out of Germany, Hedwig’s is abandoned by her husband.
Hedwig has another ex-partner, Tommy Gnosis (played by Michael Pitt, singing voice provided by Trask) who stole all his songs and became a superstar. Now Hedwig and his band “present the appearance of stalking him” around the country. That’s about it for the plot – any other elements of storytelling are short remembrances of Hansel as a child. The focus is really on the music, as well as Hedwig’s captivating face, often shot to fill the screen, adorned with a distinctive blonde wig (often with the upturned Germanic horns of hair.) Of course it’s all down to personal taste, but the music for me was instantly likeable, very distinctive, pensive, melancholy, but also arcing into heavy rock. Trask has that enviable ability to write songs which feel familiar but at the same time completely novel.
The narrative is unwound mainly through Hedwig’s inter-song autobiographical heart-to-heart moments with his various different audiences in various low key locations. For the most part the band’s audience is anyone who will pay attention. For example at “The Menses Fair: a celebration of women and music”, the audience is one vacant looking goth girl under a black umbrella.
The stand-out performance is Mitchell as Hedwig, a character beautiful and delicate, almost to the point of being breakable, yet also capable of vicious passport-tearing malice. Miriam Shor plays Yitzhak, Hedwig’s husband. It is to my eternal ignorance that I watched this film the first time and didn’t even question that Yitzhak wasn’t being played by a man. Shor does a fantastic job, is manly but at the same time fragile, and like Mitchell and Trask has been with the show since its beginnings.
This film is also really funny. There are too many stunning one liners and surreal little moments to mention them all, but to give you a sense of Hedwig’s darkly droll sense of humour, during the ‘Angry Inch’ song she laments, “Long story short, when I woke up from the operation I was bleeding down there… My first day as a woman and already it’s that time of the month.” There are also parody moments of sing-along (during my favourite song ‘Wig in a Box’, the most immediately memorable), when a dancing little wig hops along the lyrics which have suddenly appeared at the bottom of the scream. There is also the scene where Hansel meets his American husband-to-be, which sets up the evil sugary nature of American treats versus the bitter German treat “Gummibaren”.
It’s also visually engaging. Some events are explained through line-drawing cartoons, such as sketchy stick figure representations of Hedwig’s birth, line drawings like thin crayon on a sugar paper background. We feel we are inside Hedwig’s mind. The animation during ‘The Origin of Love’, is a slow moving, calm retelling of a tale from Plato’s ‘Symposium’ dealing with the symbolic idea that two people are only halves who must find one another in order to be made whole again. Arianne Phillips also does an excellent job as costume designer; each look is distinctive, over the top, but also somehow soft.
I have learned many things from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I’ve cemented my belief that a man can be more the ideal of a beautiful woman than most women, I’ve learned that women can also portray men believably without the audience batting an eyelid, and I’ve learned that my first two points are perfectly inconsequential. Oh yeh, I also learned that you shouldn’t put a bra in a dryer (apparently it warps).