Dir: John Cameron Mitchell
Cert: 18 • US: 87 min • Fine Line Features • July 20, 2001
Walter Beck reviews
Adapted from the Off-Broadway musical of the same name, Hedwig and the Angry Inch was the first queer rock ‘n’ roll musical film of the 21st century. Starring many of the same people from the original stage production, including John Cameron Mitchell, Miriam Shor and Stephen Trask (who wrote the music), it’s the strange journey of a transgender punk rock queen and her search for fulfilment.
The story of East German punk musician Hedwig Robinson (born Hansel Schmidt) and her band, the Angry Inch, starts out with Hedwig and the boys rocking out in a small seafood bar, trailing the tour of international rock sensation Tommy Gnosis. Later with her bandmate and lover Yitzhak, Hedwig begins telling her story.
Born in East Germany with a domineering mother and an absent father, Hedwig first comes to America following a marriage to American soldier Luther Robinson, and a botched sex change operation (leaving her with what she called an “angry inch”). After a year in America, Robinson leaves Hedwig.
Destitute and broke, Hedwig begins taking odd jobs, meeting a rock ‘n’ roll obsessed teenager named Tommy Speck, whom Hedwig believes to be her mythical other half. Taking him under her wing, Hedwig teaches Tommy the ways of punk rock, bestowing upon him his stage name, Tommy Gnosis, from the Greek word for knowledge.
In a fit of rage, Gnosis leaves Hedwig, taking with him all the songs they wrote together. This brings us back to the present time-frame with Hedwig’s band following Tommy’s wildly successful tour. Hedwig is growing obsessed with Gnosis, wanting a confrontation and demanding that the world knows who wrote all of Tommy’s big hits. Hedwig finally gets her wish, getting in Tommy’s limousine one night. The two begin drinking heavily and jamming out on their old songs on the stereo. Things take a turn as they get into a drunken crash, Tommy’s career is shattered and Hedwig finally finds her fame and recognition …
Upon the film’s release, many critics compared it to The Rocky Horror Picture Show for its similar explorations of sexuality, gender, and personal identity – all with a hard jamming rock n roll beat. But I think that comparison falls short.
This film is much more like a queer re-interpretation of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Hedwig, like Pink, has a domineering and controlling mother and a father who is absent from his life. Both characters find solace in rock n roll and ultimately attempt to use the fame and glory of rock stardom to cover up the pain and alienation of their lives. But for both, the plan fails. While Pink lost himself in a haze of drugs and isolation and imagined himself a fascist dictator before snapping and falling back into reality, Hedwig found herself lost in the obsession of her former lover and songwriting partner, trailing his tour, before snapping as a result of her stage image and jealousy.
Both characters end their stories naked and clean for the first time, ready to face their respective realities.
Of course, this being a musical (and my rep as a music critic), I should comment on the songs in the film. While strongly rooted in punk, the songs range from heartfelt ballads like ‘Wicked Little Town’ and ‘In Your Arms Tonight’ to poppy sing alongs such as ‘Wig in a Box’ and even Johnny Cash styled country number called ‘Sugar Daddy’.
However, it’s the balls-out rockers that make this film what it is. Punchy anthems like the opener ‘Tear Me Down’, the violent ‘Nailed’, and of course the signature punk burner ‘Angry Inch’ (which would be covered by American gothic doom lords Type O Negative). They capture the crazed and schizophrenic spirit of Hedwig’s story and the band that backs her.
The film is a blast all the way through; it’s got one hell of a soundtrack, an engaging story of isolation, self-destruction, and ultimately, revelation and redemption. You don’t have to read into it as deeply as I did, it works just as a fun film to put on. It has the dirty, snotty attitude that is often missing in contemporary queer culture. It’s nothing short of essential viewing.