Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

Director:John Cameron Mitchell
Writer/s:John Cameron Mitchell
Release date:2001

I wrote a critical essay on this film about 12 years ago (possibly more) for a university assignment. Back then, though not new, discussing gender was not something done as prolifically as it is done right now. Before starting to write this I was skimming through a few articles on the internet and came across a headline from one of those ‘click bait’ sites citing some sort of backlash regarding the Riverdale episode that was an ode or homage to Hedwig. First of all the odds of the people watching Riverdale having even seen Hedwig is quite a stretch. Second of all I actually do watch Riverdale and thought that episode was brilliant! So there! Now back to Hedwig:

The opening scene is Hedwig, our heroine portrayed by the phenomenal John Cameron Mitchell, who also wrote the screenplay and directed this gem of a film. I’m a huge fan, can you tell? So Hedwig draped in an American flag and her trademark blonde wig is on stage with her band, The Inch and she declares to a mostly deadpan and unappreciative audience in mid-west America:

“I’m the new Berlin Wall! Try and tear me down!”

“Tear Me Down” is the song that starts our glorious journey following Hedwig who much like the Berlin wall and the divide between East and West Germany, sees herself as the divide between man and woman. After the concert Hedwig and her lover and fellow band member, Yitzhak (Miriam Shore) in a less than exemplary motel surrounded by blonde wigs catch a music video on MTV by recording artist, Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt) for a song that Hedwig wrote. Hedwig throws a fit and Yitzhak begs her to write another song.

Hedwig and Yitzhak

It seems Hedwig and her band of Eastern European musicians, along with their very enthusiastic manager, have been trailing Tommy Gnosis on his American tour, after it comes to light that Gnosis and Hedwig once knew each other and no longer speak after he began a music career and never credited Hedwig’s lyrics. Yitzhak and Hedwig fall asleep next to one another to the artificial sounds of the womb.

Born from a German mother and an American G.I father who inappropriately touched Hedwig as a child, the song “ The Origin of Love” is Hedwig’s story of finding love. This beautiful song is an ode to the mythological gods who punished the human race who were once creatures of both male and female parts by tearing them in two, forcing them to spend eternity searching for their “other halves”.

“Deny me and be doomed” declared the gods.”

Hedwig was born in 1961 the year the Berlin Wall went up, and after her mother kicked her father out Hedwig remembers discussing Jesus and Hitler with her mother and listening to rock n’roll music in the oven of their home. She remembers the voices of Toni Tennille, Debby Boone, and Anne Murray, and then later the “crypto-homo rockers” Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and David Bowie. When Hedwig was a bit older she meets Luther, another GI, whilst tanning her naked body on the ruins of a bomb shelter. He seduces her with Gummi Bears and every candy bar you can possibly think of, becoming her ‘sugar daddy’ so to speak. It is only later when Luther wants to marry Hedwig and leave Germany with her that the most significant event in our heroine’s life takes place. You see, Hedwig was born Hansel, a boy, in 1961 and in order to legally marry Luther he will have to go through an operation to remove his penis, or “bishop in a turtle neck”as Hedwig refers to it.

“To be free one must give up a little part of oneself” and so he does…

Taking on the name Hedwig Schmidt after his mother, and after a botched operation the new Hedwig is left with “a one-inch mound of flesh”, and so became the Angry Inch. Hedwig will sing all about this journey to a new body and his life with Luther in the rock country gem “Sugar Daddy” and the punky “Angry Inch”, while his band is involved in a bar fight during a rendition of the latter. In Junction City Kansas the year the Berlin Wall came down Luther will leave Hedwig for a younger man in a trailer home surrounded by blonde wigs and memories. The song “Wig in A Box” is performed inside the trailer with the entire home opening up into a stage for the whole band. It’s a song with pop culture references and is all about how easy it is to become someone else if you really want to be. This is when Hedwig is finally on her own and starts trying to make her dreams of fame and fortune come true.

On a pile of tyres in a dirty alley Hedwig is sitting among her groupies all clad in giant plastic wigs in Hedwig’s trademark style. She explains to her followers how she met the now famous Tommy Gnosis when, apart from forming a band with a group of Korean army wives, she became the babysitter for an army general whose eldest son, Tommy Speck was a “17 year old, classic rock loving, dungeons and dragons obsessed, Jesus freak with a fish on his truck”. After seeing Hedwig perform “Wicked Little Town” in a local café, Tommy begs Hedwig to teach him about music. Tommy’s idea of rock are the bands America, Kansas, Europe, Asia and Boston – to which Hedwig quips: “Travel exhausts me”. They start to perform and write songs together, and during that time Hedwig bedazzles Tommy’s guitar and renames him Tommy Gnosis – which translates to the knowledge of spiritual mysteries. Little did Hedwig know that she had not just created a star, but had metaphorically birthed one. During their time together they fell in love, despite Tommy’s reluctance to be completely intimate with Hedwig. In an intimate kissing scene between Hedwig and Tommy, the naïve boy discovers our heroine’s ‘inch’ and when asked what that is the response is: “it’s what I have to work with”.

Tommy Gnosis

Back in one of their usual dicey motels, Yitzhak announces he has been given a role in the musical RENT and wants not only to leave the band but to divorce Hedwig (this being a revelation to viewers that the lovers were married). Hedwig lashes out at Yitzhak by tearing up his passport sparking her manager and remaining band members to finally abandon Hedwig.

Three weeks later, and Hedwig is working the streets as a prostitute and gets picked up in a black limousine which just so happens to have a very sheepish looking Tommy Gnosis in the back seat. They spend the night together in reckless abandon singing their old songs together, getting drunk and consequently crashing into another vehicle. The next day they are both front page news with Tommy refusing to acknowledge knowing Hedwig before the accident. Whilst Tommy’s fame dwindles, Hedwig’s is just beginning as she takes to the stage once again with the reunited band and performs “Hedwig’s Lament”, “Exquisite Corpse” and the final song “Midnight Radio” to an audience that has not changed. There are still those that stand in complete rapture and those that look on with disbelief and horror as Hedwig smashes the equipment and strips down to almost nothing and finally hands her blonde wig over to Yitzhak – essentially passing the torch and Yitzhak blossoms into a blonde siren being carried over the crowd. In the middle of this Hedwig closes his eyes and is suddenly standing naked at the edge of a stage watching Tommy perform “Wicked Little Town” and then walk away.

The final scenes are of Hedwig performing as Hansel for the first time. A shot of the animated two halves coming together as one, and then finally a stark naked Hansel walking down a dark alley towards a flash of light, and the rest of the world.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a story that deserves unpacking but also doesn’t necessarily need the scrutiny. It is a film about gender and how it matters and how it doesn’t matter at the same time. It’s a film about the American dream and how that dream doesn’t exist. It’s about women dressing up as ‘men’ and men dressing up as ‘women’ and about being both man and woman. It’s a love story not just between two people, but the love for music and what it means to love a song and the people who make those songs. Hedwig is a gloriously packaged homage to David Bowie and mythology and to being in love with oneself. It is through Hedwig’s own observations and humorous anecdotes that for 1 hour and 35 minutes we find ourselves taking the back-seat of a rock road-trip that will feel like Studio 54, Homer’s The Odyssey and The Wizard Of Oz all rolled into a tight blonde bun, with only a smattering of blue eye-shadow left on the pillow the morning after, and visions of our one true love to remind us what an epic ride it truly was, and can be…

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