Published on June 8th, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Lazy Sunday Rewatch – Hedwig and the Angry Inch
For this Sunday’s Rewatch, we go back to 2001 for John Cameron Mitchell’s ambitious and triumphant film adaptation of his hit off Broadway rock musical.
That’s the pain,
That cuts a straight line
Down through the heart;
We called it love.
– The Origin of Love
These lyrics come at the resounding height of Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s most essential and famous tune. The song serves as a kind of thesis statement for the musical; the above lyrics cut to the core of its message, as well as the film’s characterization of Hedwig. The idea of being split down the middle, torn in half is Hedwig’s primary circumstance. Not only is she torn from the love of her life, the more mainstream, palatable rockstar version of her: Tommy Gnosis. But she is also torn from her true self, being the victim of a botched (and forced) sex change operation that left her with nothing but the titular “Angry Inch.”
Her arc in the film, as she stalks Tommy through America, is about finding that other half. It’s about resolving that pain “that cuts a straight line down through the heart.” Not only is it about her relationship with Tommy but it is also about her relationship with herself. It’s about finding that other part that completes her, that makes her love who she is rather than who she was told to be.
That’s the kind of love John Cameron Mitchell’s film aspires to celebrate. Hedwig is a sexy, intoxicating, but also deeply resentful metaphor for the ways society splits people in two, telling them who they can and cannot be. Mitchell has said in interviews that Hedwig is trans and that she goes by she/her pronouns. But I think the point the film (which was based on one of the most successful off-Broadway musicals of all time) is trying to make is that gender identity and sexuality are complex. They do not just fit into binaries. We all deserve to be simply who we are meant to be, regardless of labels.
Hedwig is an amalgam of different aspects of her sexuality, her life experiences, and her emotions. As the number “Wig in a Box” states, she “puts on her makeup” and “suddenly [she’s] miss Farrah Fawcet from TV.” But then “[she] wakes up…and [she] turns back into herself.” Whatever that self is, it’s a mixture of wigs and disguises with what lies beneath: a person who just wanted to be loved. A person who just wants to be seen.
What makes Hedwig such a charming and moving rewatch is not very different from what makes any great musical fun to re-visit. Its songs are catchy as hell, and the musical performances actually tell the story instead of just serving as filler to glitz up a conventional narrative. The film’s opening title sequence is set to Hedwig and her band’s signature brand of glam-punk serenading a dive-y restaurant with “Tear Me Down.” As the film is largely comprised of Hedwig’s “tour” through dingey, sparsely attended venues in the whatever city Tommy Gnosis is playing, many of musical numbers are just straight-forward band performances. There isn’t a great deal of diegesis-breaking musicality, save for a few pivotal moments like “Wig in a Box” or “Wicked Little Town.”
This allows the film to channel that low-rent, off-Broadway spirit into a true blue indie film, skimming off any glamor and pizzazz that you’d expect from a typical musical. It’s a rock musical precisely because it incorporates the grimy and abrasive aspects of rock. And towards its conclusion, it gets just impressionistic enough with its story to fit the mold of a capital-R Rock Opera. The filmmaking, in conjunction with the music, never yields to conventionality. It plays within the enigmatic charm of classic rock bands and their often beautifully murky signifiers. Fitting for a film about people so disregarded by society.
I think this is my favorite musical of all time. It’s got a punk rock spirit, a catchy soundtrack, and an ambitious, exhilarating style of filmmaking. Most importantly, it contains a textured and incredibly important message. It’s incredibly nuanced in its portrait of the struggle gay, trans, queer, non-conforming people have in this world, the cruel ways in which society splits them down the middle. Yet, it finds a beauty in the disarray, a light at the end of the tunnel to truly find your other half–to self-actualize, finding meaning in this “Wicked Little Town” we call planet Earth. And Hedwig herself is not some kind of Mary-Sue perfect saint. She is anxious and angry and self-absorbed. But Mitchell plays her with such humanity, and ultimately, the film fleshes out that chip on her shoulder so that, by the end, we can celebrate her resilience. The film’s final number, “Midnight Radio” summarizes the film’s gravitas perfectly.
And all the strange rock and rollers
You know you’re doing all right
So hold on to each other
You gotta hold on tonight
This film is for all the strange rock and rollers. It understands that what the world deems “strange” is really just a form of beauty they are blind to see. In the end, we’re all just wandering souls looking for our other halves. That quintessentially human desire for completion—that’s the origin of love.