Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) – For the Misfits and the Losers…

“My sex change operation got botched,

My guardian angel fell asleep on the watch,

Now all I’ve got is a barbie doll crotch,

I’ve got an angry inch!”

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is often compared to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, although the similarities are mainly superficial.  Both feature outrageously towering performances from their lead actors, dressed in women’s clothing.  Both are musicals adapted from the stage, and both teach us to accept ourselves – “Don’t dream it, be it.”, as Dr Frank N Furter might say.

Hedwig is a much better film, though.  On a small budget, co-writer and star John Cameron Mitchell makes an astonishingly assured directorial debut, full of verve, invention and wit.

It tells the tale of Hansel, a “girly boy” from East Germany, who undergoes a shady sex change operation to escape to the West with his American boyfriend, assuming his mother’s name, Hedwig.  The op goes terribly wrong, leaving him with the “Angry Inch” of the title.

Living on a trailer park in Junction City, Kansas, her new hubby ditches her for a younger guy.  Washed up and alone, Hedwig finds empowerment in a blonde wig, and forms a band, The Angry Inch, a shabby, depressed bunch of Eastern Europeans on the run from immigration.

Nominally in a relationship with guitarist Yitzhak (Miriam Shor), Hedwig falls for a young fan.  They appear to be soul mates, her other half, and write most of the band’s songs together.  However, Tommy also leaves her and goes on to become a huge rock star, singing their songs.

Hedwig and her bedraggled band follow Tommy around on tour, playing gigs in dreary clubs, restaurants and bars in the cities her ex is performing at major sell out events.

If the subject matter sounds a bit too extreme or depressing, let me tell you this: Hedwig and the Angry Inch is not a kitchen sink drama about the dangers of dodgy back alley sex change operations.  The tone is vibrant and kitschy, restlessly bouncing from flashback to song to Hedwig’s deadpan, acerbic narration of her tale.

The first hour in particular is a blast, and Cameron Mitchell keeps piling on the inventive visuals.  Childish animations from Hedwig’s first diary (written on toilet paper in crayon) flesh out her back story.

A young Hansel playing in the oven of his mother’s small apartment turns into a fully grown, glammed up Hedwig, and the camera rotates dizzyingly as she describes how she fell in love with music.  There is the Wig Cam shots from Hedwig’s POV, and one of the film’s showstoppers, Wig in a Box, transforms Hedwig & Luther’s trailer into a stage with footlights.

Mitchell pulls out a big performance as Hedwig.  Embittered and heart-broken, she is singing songs about her experiences that most of her audience really don’t want to hear about.  She is bullying and domineering towards her band, and suffers violent mood swings, but Mitchell also makes her vulnerable, tender, eloquent, and lovelorn.  He also sings well and bursts out of the screen with his energetic performances of the songs.

The songs, written by Mitchell and Stephen Trask, are a lively mish-mash of styles, with lyrics that are at once mischievous, inventive, naive and inspiring.

Standout numbers include The Origin of Love, describing mankind’s beginnings as four-legged, four-armed creatures split down the middle by angry Gods, thus explaining human’s never-ending search for their other half.

Angry Inch is an aggressive rock song describing in vivid detail the disastrous operation.  Wig in a Box, perhaps the film’s catchiest number, is about Hedwig’s talismanic hairpiece collection and transformation into “Miss Punk Rock Star of Stage and Screen”.

Wicked Little Town is a plaintive, melodious slower number Hedwig originally thinks will be her breakout hit, before it’s stolen by Tommy – “We are talking to Phil Collins’ people.  But then again…aren’t we all?”

Hedwig and the Angry Inch becomes a little formless in its final third, but signs off with the magnificent Midnight Radio as our hero/heroine finally comes to terms with herself, a glorious anthem “For the misfits and the losers”.

With such a huge presence at the film’s center, there’s little room for the other performers, although Miriam Shor has a few moments as Hedwig’s “boyfriend”, whose gender is bent in the other direction.  Michael Pitt fits the bill as Tommy, and Michael Dean Wint makes a memorable impression as Hedwig’s “Sugar Daddy” Luther, a lothario with a Barry White voice.

I know some more conservative viewers are reluctant to watch movies featuring transvestites and transsexuals, or anything transgender, often because of the misplaced fear it somehow makes them a bit gay.  Hedwig and the Angry Inch won’t make you gay.  It might make you feel more acceptant towards other people, and maybe yourself.  And you’ll probably be humming Wig in a Box for the next week…

About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and two children.

Posted on 25/06/2012, in Comedy, Drama, Entertainment, Film, H, Movies, Musicals, Reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I haven’t seen this one in so long but I remember enjoying the artistic standpoint that Mitchell took with this film. Great music, too. Good review.

  2. I feel stupid for not realizing what the title meant. I’ve known about this movie since it came out on home video (I was working at a video store at the time) but I never bothered looking into this one. Now that I know what its about I’m kind of curious.

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