The thing about cinema is that it’s an often very literal art form that takes what is often very metaphorical or performance art about stage productions and has a hard time supplanting it for the audience. For “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” it’s a very good cult rock film that often feels like it has to be seen on stage in order to soak in the true experience. I’m not trying to take away what a cult classic John Cameron Mitchell’s musical drama is, but I couldn’t quite help but feel that “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” could have been much more appreciated as a live show.
Adapted from the musical, John Cameron Mitchell plays Hedwig, born a boy named Hansel in Communist East Berlin, who dreamed of finding his other half and becoming a big American rock star. In order to marry and emigrate to America, Hansel must “leave a little something behind.” Hedwig survives a botched sex change operation that leaves her with an “angry inch” only to be stranded in a Kansas trailer park. Hedwig dons makeup and a Farrah Fawcett wig and forms a rock band-The Angry Inch. While supporting herself with babysitting gigs, she falls for a 16-year-old Jesus freak she renames Tommy Gnosis. Tommy steals her songs and becomes the rock star Hedwig always dreamed she’d be. All the while Hedwig performs in hopes of obtaining fame and adulation.
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” packs a great energy about it, and director-writer John Cameron Mitchell is able to bring so much of the electricity on to film. As Hedwig, he’s a flawed and often unusual protagonist that manages to confront her own inner demons and use it as a means of building on her music and performance art. Much of Hedwig’s life is uncomfortable with elements involving sexual abuse, and search for and identity. Only for her to have it robbed once again with Tommy takes her music and uses it as a means of building an iconic career. Along the way, Hedwig reflects on so much of her life which mixes in fantasy sequences interspersed with sexual liberation.
Sex is often used in the film as a means of conveying certain emotions, from fear, and tension, to violence, and even surrealism. John Cameron Mitchell knows how to make sex such a potent element of his storytelling, relying on it to convey his relationship with an African American GI who literally forces him in to sex change. There’s also the humorous moment when Tommy meets Hedwig while he’s taking a bath. John Cameron Mitchell is very good in a movie that requires him to carry most of the narrative, and Michael Pitt works well, playing a great concept of the feminine and masculine sexual energy and appeal that consistently eludes Hedwig.
That said, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is a very niche film and even art house lovers might have a tough time enjoying the narrative. The story jumps pacing way too much, often resulting in a jarring experience, and confusing story structure. It’s tough to figure out what is fantasy and what is merely just narration, and there’s never a ton of indication whether or not Hedwig breaks the fourth wall or not. The finale is also incredibly ambiguous, resulting in a final scene that’s left up to interpretation and isn’t wholly as satisfying or complete as it should have been. While I didn’t take to “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” too much, it has great energy and electric music that will grab a new audience.
The physical bells and whistles include a 54-page illustrated booklet featuring an essay by Stephanie Zacharek, along with, production photos by Potter and costume designer Arianne Phillips, illustrations by Hubley, and excerpts from two of the films inspirations, Plato’s Symposium and The Gospel of Thomas.
The Criterion release includes the remastered Trailer for the film. A “Hedwig” Reunion is a new hour long program created exclusively for Criterion with actor/director John Cameron Mitchell, cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco, composer Stephen Trask, and other contributors, all of whom recall their work on Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The Music of “Hedwig” is a half hour program created exclusively for Criterion with music critic David Fricke and composer Stephen Trask. They discuss the soundtrack of Hedwig and The Angry Inch. 2003’s Whether You Like It or Not: The Story of Hedwig is an eighty six minutes archival documentary that takes a closer look at the conception of the character of Hedwig, as well as her appearances in the off-Broadway productions as well as David Cameron Mitchell’s film. There’s the inclusion of clips from archival interviews with various cast and crew members.
The chapters include Beginnings/SqueezeBox, The off-Broadway years, The Jane Street Theatre, Hedwig numbers 207, Hedeads and more. From the Archives is a forty nine minute archival program that gathers footage/materials with a closer look at the film’s conception and themes. The materials were provided by, and are discussed by, John Cameron Mitchell, costume designer Arianne Phillips, and hair stylist Mike Potter. Produced by the Sundance Film Channel in 2001, Anatomy of a Scenes is a twenty minutes archival documentary that examines the creation of the Adam and Eve sequence from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. There’s a thirteen minutes collection of Deleted Scenes, all presented with an optional commentary. Finally there’s an archival audio commentary recorded in 2001 featuring John Cameron Mitchell and cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco.