Criterion Whips out HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH

John Cameron Mitchell's scrappy, breakthrough transgender punk rock musical is just as catchy as ever.

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
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Criterion Whips out HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH

In its day, John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch fired a major salvo across a great divide that, nearly twenty years later, would prove to be eroded if not torn down -- not unlike the Berlin Wall itself.  And most of the world wasn’t cool enough to notice.

Recently released for the first time on Blu-ray as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is an endearingly bold and scrappy first film that’s as confident as it is genuinely moving and legitimately entertaining.  The film announces itself in its first moments loudly, with a shredding assault of live electric guitar music 'n' bright, rudimentary animated credits that Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim versus the World would later emulate.  “Sit up and take notice!”, it yells, even as it defies you not to rock along.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is so much more than just the movie at hand.  Based on a wave-making musical play of the same title, also featuring John Cameron Mitchell in the lead role and created by Mitchell and composer Stephen Trask, it’s also the name of the band.  The movie follows the group as they tour the U.S. in the shadow of a rock superstar called Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt, playing the would-be Marilyn Manson as rightly slippery, fraudulent, and pathetic) who is currently burning up the charts with Hedwig’s songs, credited solely to him.  

The Angry Inch’s manager, played neurotically by Andrea Martin (SCTV), is all about Hedwig’s pending lawsuit against Gnosis, even as she isn’t keen to the degree with which they are stalking him.  The lawsuit will make Hedwig into one superrich transsexual while also socking it to her former lover.  It will make this pathetic tour of the fictional and failing Bilgewater’s seafood chain worth the nightly humiliations. 

Had I not mentioned that Hedwig is transsexual?  In 2001, when the film first emerged, this core aspect felt straight-up subversive, verboten, even kind of dangerous.  From a 2019 perspective, this is hardly the eyebrow-raiser it was for so many back then.  Dare I say, with much of that stigma having been nullified by time and broader enlightenment, Hedwig is now exposed plainly as the raw, personal tale of displacement and identity struggle that it’s been all along.

I put on some make-up

Turn on the eight-tack

I'm pulling the wig down from the shelf

Suddenly I'm Miss Farrah Fawcett from TV

Until I wake up

And I turn back to myself

*****

Just an innocent German kid growing up in early-1960s East Berlin, the boy who would be Hedwig operated under the nihilistic thumb of his Hitler-lamenting mother.  “Play in the oven!”, she would say to him.  And he did.  The boy, down on all fours with his head in the oven, it’s interior decorated like a locker at school (future-Hedwig tells us that he was “a student of the American masters: Toni Tennille, Debby Boone, Anne Murray, who was actually Canadian, working in the American idiom...”) might be a weirdly on-the-nose allusion to Nazi concentration camps and the like, but this is a punk rock movie.  Not exactly a subtle form.  Lou Reed and David Bowie factor in soon enough.

There are times even now, just as in 2001 and a good decade prior, when transgender identity issues have been covered by willing media outlets in a kind of self-congratulatory way.  Listen as an NPR host’s voice pops up an octave when they get to the part about the subject being transgender.  For all the visibility such coverage brings to this particular reality, the end result is simply a different kind of othering.  Hedwig, from the character’s live theater inception, refused to be anyone’s dancing monkey.  She is not your rock n’ roll freak show nor your pathway to that diversity merit badge.  

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And that’s how and why John Cameron Mitchell and company transcended a hill that, at the time, very few even realized was a hill at all.  The hill might’ve been a strange and unidentifiable mound of flesh only one inch high, but cross it we must, if empathy is to triumph over hatred, selfishness and division.  A botched sex change makes for strange terrain but work with it (in a very broader sense) we must.  We move may only move six inches forward and five inches back, but in eighteen years, the angry inch gained is progress.  For us, it’s an origin of love, if not the origin of love.

For Hedwig, “The Origin of Love” is more than just another stolen hit.  The song, wonderfully, weirdly animated for the film by Emily Hubley, lays out an alternate history of humanity in which pantheism runs amok against three races of multi-limbed beings.  For a dejected East Berliner who’s been ganked around her whole life, this origin of the species makes as much sense as anything else.  Its telling on this tour makes for a most evocative 2-for-1 Lobster Mondays seafood restaurant empowerment zone-out:

And there were three sexes then,

One that looked like two men

Glued up back to back,

Called the children of the sun.

And similar in shape and girth

Were the children of the earth.

They looked like two girls

Rolled up in one.

And the children of the moon

Were like a fork shoved on a spoon.

They were part sun, part earth

Part daughter, part son.

*****

Hedwig’s tale is an unlikely tragedy to be sure, but one of color, verve, and tremendous resonance.  My 2001 year-end movies list ranked Hedwig and the Angry Inch at #9, outgunned by semi-posturing self-serious titles like Amores Perros and Memento.  If I had it all to do over again (and who’s to say I don’t?), David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. would make the jump from #2 to #1, with Hedwig right behind it.  John Cameron Mitchell didn’t secure the directorial career nor the acting career he deserved on the high heels of this crackling, unforgettable breakthrough effort.  But it must be no small compensation for Criterion to come calling all these years later.

Dare I say it, Criterion’s packaging and booklet for Hedwig is more aggressively punk rock than the film   Itself.  The cardboard slipcase houses a foldout tray that houses one heckuva supplemental book.  Fifty-two gloriously graphically assaultive pages that take us back to the time of maniacal zines and rock stars dressed to shrill.  Time magazine chief film critic Stephanie Zacharek provides the essay.  Some but not all of the video bonus features are carry-overs from the 2001 New Line DVD release.  Which is no complaint at all, as those supplements stood as some of the best, most forthright at the time.  Studio-generated DVD and Blu-ray since only went more homogenized in the years following before, surprise surprise, they withered away out of the boredom they inflicted.  Not these:

  • Trailer - remastered!!!
  • A "Hedwig" Reunion - A newly produced, highly amusing hour-long program featuring actor/director John Cameron Mitchell, cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco, composer Stephen Trask, and other contributors recall their work on Hedwig and the Angry Inch.  Created exclusively for Criterion in 2019. 
  • The Music of "Hedwig" - Another new feature, this one 30 minutes, in which music critic David Fricke and composer Stephen Trask break down the music of Hedwig and The Angry Inch
  • Whether You Like It or Nor: The Story of Hedwig (2003) - A fantastic long-form documentary from 2003 touching on the origins of Hedwig and the origins of the love of Hedwig.  
  • From the Archives - Cobbled-together older footage covering assorted details of the production.
  • Anatomy of a Scenes - A twenty-minute Sundance Film Channel examination of the film’s “Adam and Eve” sequence, made in 2001.
  • Deleted Scenes - with an optional commentary. 
  • Commentary - Recorded in 2001 and featuring John Cameron Mitchell and cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco.

*****

Okay

Everybody!

I put on some make-up

Turn up the eight track

I'm pulling the wig down from the shelf

Suddenly I'm this punk rock star of stage and screen

And I ain't never

I'm never turning back!

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Director(s)
  • John Cameron Mitchell
Writer(s)
  • John Cameron Mitchell (book)
  • Stephen Trask (book)
  • John Cameron Mitchell (screenplay)
Cast
  • John Cameron Mitchell
  • Miriam Shor
  • Stephen Trask
  • Theodore Liscinski
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Criterion Blu-rayHedwig and the Angry InchJohn Cameron MitchellStephen TraskMiriam ShorTheodore LiscinskiComedyDramaMusicMusical