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Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Disc Reviews

Criterion Collection: Hedwig and the Angry Inch | Blu-ray Review

Criterion Collection: Hedwig and the Angry Inch | Blu-ray Review

Few queer films have pierced the contemporary cultural nexus as effectively as John Cameron Mitchell’s beloved 2001 directorial debut Hedwig and the Angry Inch, adapted from his own underground cult stage play which amassed a considerable following thanks to its 1998 off-Broadway success (its stage prologue was birthed even earlier during performances at clubs and varied offbeat New York venues). Mitchell arrived at the end of the 1990s as an outré vision with a metaphor on the painful but necessary unity of converging humankind’s disparities torn mercilessly asunder. Earlier in the same decade, the Sundance Film Festival generated a small movement which would come to be classified as New Queer Cinema, where auteurs like Todd Haynes, Derek Jarman, Rose Troche, Gregg Araki and Jennie Livingston rose like phoenixes from the ashes of Reaganomics and the ongoing AIDs crisis. Ten years later, Mitchell’s cinematic adaptation of his underground play would debut at the same film festival, winning him Best Director and the Audience Prize before it was released, rather unceremoniously, into US theaters in the summer of 2001 (though Mitchell did snag a Golden Globe nod).

Just as New Queer Cinema grew old, and Mitchell’s decadence was an indication of a new generation of queer narrative possibilities, so have the gender and identity politics of his film in the two decades since its debut. Representation which was once audacious and ingenious, now feels antiquated in a new century of LGBTQIA agency and ownership. And yet, the effortless poignancy and tragic beauty of Hedwig distills a time capsule of early 2000s sentiments, a sigh of resistance in the eve of 9/11’s resulting fear-based regressions which still succeeds as one of the most successful rock musical confections ever made.

Raised as a boy in 1980s East Berlin, Hedwig (Mitchell) tours with her band The Angry Inch through the bowels of American Midwest malls and family restaurants performing a catalogue of songs influenced by her life story. As a teenage boy who fell in love with an American military officer, their marriage and her emigration required a sex reassignment surgery but a botched operation left her with the titular mound of flesh resulting in her mangled genitalia. Abandoned in Kansas by her groom, Hedwig transforms herself into a punk glam rock diva, falling in love with an innocent yet woefully conservative Christian youth (Michael Pitt), who would steal her lyrics and find success as an angsty musical sensation known as Tommy Gnosis. Trailing behind his wake of success, Hedwig’s rage occludes the sense of self she had so bitterly fought to realize.

A remnant of a bygone era, mutilated emotionally and physically by political restrictions, Hedwig is indeed a broken yet resilient hero from a fairytale nightmare. Like the protagonist of the studio era ‘women’s picture’ razed by the regression of the heteropatriarchy, Hedwig channels the melodrama of Sirk reconfigured by the likes of John Waters, a peripheral scion damned to perform her pain in front of disinterested Midwesterners glutting themselves in innocuous family-style buffets. For all the inspiration lifted from Aristophanes, Hedwig also plays like the Tiffany inspired metaphor of Aesop’s fable concerning the bat, a creature rejected by both the birds and the beasts. If Hedwig courts problematic gender politics, it’s a characterization worthy of deliberation.

As performed by Mitchell, who is a cis gender gay man masquerading in drag, the figure of Hedwig resists categorization, a political refugee who can only reluctantly lay claims to a trans identity, an ambivalent bystander in his own gender identity. Mitchell and composer Stephen Trask are really revamping the controversial semblance of Fassbinder, whose In a Year with 13 Moons (1978) similarly depicts a character who opts to switch genders solely at the behest of his lover (similarly, Maurice Dean Wint, one of the few racial others in this Euro-white landscape, earns comparison to Fassbinder muse Günther Kaufmann) only to be abandoned and regretful. If anything, Hedwig and the Angry Inch challenges our obsessions with certainty and categorization, and confirms its relevance in the zeitgeist. As far as fluidity, however, its visual coding creates some confusion, particularly with the casting of Miriam Shor as Hedwig’s long-suffering Croatian lover Yitzhak. One assumes, incorrectly, Yitzhak is a trans man, but we come to realize he’s meant to read as a cis male who yearns to embrace his femininity by donning his lover’s garb. The layers of complexity remain playful, with a cis woman playing a cis man who longs to experience femininity—but there’s also some inherent disappointment in learning this gender play is not, in fact, a rare occurrence of two unabashed, unheralded trans characters.

While the stage play has gone on to considerable success on Broadway (with Neil Patrick Harris notably taking on the role), Mitchell’s performance and Stephen Trask’s incredibly touching tracks allow for delirious cinematic spectacle. Mitchell’s Hedwig (who could double for Juliette Lewis or Rachel Griffiths), with his sun-halo wig and his hip-huggers, remains one of cinema’s most heartbroken and heartbreaking cinematic chanteuses.

Michael Pitt, in an early breakthrough role, is his petulant, cherub face Christian fundamentalist lover whose traitorous embrace of his heterosexuality formulates Hedwig’s second stage of rage. Pitt (whose vocals are voiced by Trask), reads like a nihilist antagonist birthed by J.T. Leroy, while character actress Andrea Martin is on hand as the Hedwig’s committed and loveable agent. And then there’s a brief supporting turn from Alberta Watson as Hansel’s depressed East German mother, one of the underrated Canadian actresses’ more notable moments (and courting comparison to her turn as another dysfunction mom in David O. Russell’s debut, Spanking the Monkey, 1994).

Disc Review:

Criterion presents Hedwig and the Angry Inch as a brand new, director and cinematographer-approved 4K digital restoration in 1.85:1 with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Picture and sound quality are exquisite in this presentation, highlighting some exceptional work from Frank G. DeMarco, who captures the vibrancy of Hedwig even as she’s contained within the dead-end netherworld of characterless climes.

A “Hedwig” Reunion:
Criterion produced this hour-length program in February 2019 which reunites Mitchell with DP Frank G. DeMarco, composer-lyricist Stephen Trask, hairstylist-makeup artist Mike Potter, animator Emily Hubley, actor Miriam Shor and visual consultant Miguel Villalobos, each discussing their memories and involvement with the production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

The Music of “Hedwig:”
Music critic David Fricke, who originally wrote about Hedwig and the Angry Inch after seeing the production at New York’s Jane Street Theater in 1998, interviews Stephen Trask for this half-hour segment film in February 2019, discussing how Trask’s band Cheater influenced the musical compositions for the film.

Whether You Like It Or Not: The Story Of Hedwig:
Laura Nix directed this feature-length 2003 documentary which covers the complete trajectory of Hedwig as a characterization, from her first appearance at a party to the making of the film.

From the Archives:
Director John Cameron Mitchell, costumer designer Arianne Phillips and hairstylist-makeup artist Mike Potter are included in three separate archival segments as they share processes and memories of their involvement with Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Anatomy of a Scene:
The Sundance Channel produced this short documentary in 2001, which examines the Adam and Even sequence of Hedwig and the Angry Inch as well as how it was workshopped at the 1999 Sundance Institute’s Directors Lab to its realization in the film.

Deleted Scenes:
Twelve-minutes worth of deleted scenes are included on the disc (with optional commentary).

Final Thoughts:

“To walk away, you have to leave something behind,” is the poignant, metaphorical refrain of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and even in a contemporary climate where it seems the whole world has gone “six inches forward, five inches back,” there’s importance in reflecting on where we’ve been to survey how we’ve grown and how the exciting prospects of where we’ve yet to go.

Film Review: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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