For the longest while, I have always known about Hedwig and the Angry Inch as an off-Broadway rock musical that depicted the struggles of gender identity – and the music still holds up more than simply wonderfully. But what made John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s musical carry such an enduring legacy can be felt from far more than simply in how much of a staple it has become in LGBTQ+ culture in America, but also because it’s a film that just perfectly captures how good it feels to be able to break free of the boundaries set in stone by societal expectations. At the time of the film’s release the film failed to break even at the box office but it has only ever developed a more dedicated following since and not without good reason. Yet the film’s wonders don’t stop there, for it perfectly fits the definition of a great parody of a rock musical but it still retains a genuine sense of heart that even makes for an emotionally investing journey from beginning to end. But it also speaks a great deal as a testament towards the work put into making art that people love, no matter what boundaries may be holding it back.
In the title role as Hedwig Robinson is writer-director John Cameron Mitchell. During their youth, Hedwig had undergone a botched sex change operation in order to get married to a man whom they had fallen in love with while in East Berlin in order to pass off the image of a heteronormative marriage. This eventually had left them with the titular “angry inch” which they had named their band after. In exploring their past life as the “girly boy” Hansel Schmidt, the film depicts how Hedwig had come to discover her own love for rock music, and how it even shaped their own identity, together with their own relationship with Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), a former lover with whom she had also mentored that would eventually perform their songs by himself and steal the credit for them. In the present, we are introduced to Hedwig through her performance of “Tear Me Down” together with their band, to which the crowd responds with great indifference despite the energy present in their performance. It’s a moment like this that represents everything amazing that Hedwig and the Angry Inch stands for, especially in its own testament about art and expressing oneself so vividly.
As we watch Hedwig’s own potential rise to fame, what John Cameron Mitchell brings to the screen is a highly mesmerizing film all about their own complex gender identity. Yet the concept of digesting how Hedwig had come to be is another entity of its own, because Hedwig doesn’t conform to the gender binary either, which made her own rise to fame all the more difficult. Yet it’s also key to understanding how Hedwig’s own sense of self-identification would even make for a tragic figure in the process too, as if anything else couldn’t capture what made their creative process so highly compelling. Through the structure of a rock musical, Mitchell uses the template to bring oneself much closer towards Hedwig’s own struggle which allows a more personal perspective to shine, in the idea of coming to understand one’s own identity even if it doesn’t conform to the standards that have been set in stone by society and its perception of reality. It captures the very essence of punk rock, for this film clearly is made out of a love for punk rock and how it reaches its own audience through as much as an energetic concert performance – everything that Mitchell embodies on and off the stage.
This is a film all about how good it feels to break the rules no matter who may be there to stop oneself, which is especially true in the case for Hedwig’s own identification but also in how the film explores the restricting concept of the gender binary. It isn’t only there from John Cameron Mitchell’s portrayal of the titular character, but also in Miriam Shor’s own portrayal of Yitzhak, Hedwig’s husband and an aspiring drag queen. But throughout the film, Yitzhak too is still struggling even to find a means of truly expressing himself but his close ties with Hedwig would also prevent such from becoming reality. There’s a recurring motif present from Hedwig’s own search for the “other half,” whether it be seen as a boy or a girl by many. Throughout the film, Hedwig subscribes to differing gender identities and pronouns. From the casting of Hedwig and Yitzhak, the notion is clear to the viewer that Mitchell sought out to blur the lines that were made normal because of the gender binary. This isn’t a film that acknowledges its own protagonist as one who is restricted by those boundaries and it’s that freedom that makes Hedwig so fun to watch. Hedwig is not a figure that people love as “he” or “she,” but as their own self, a person who does not conform to the norms. As it also comes to guide the viewers through Hedwig’s creative process, what also comes forth is a perfect anthem for nonbinary people finding a place in the spotlight. It’s all about embracing queerness to the fullest without bringing in sexuality to the discussion among the most important fundamentals in making it so distinctive as a staple of queer culture.
Everything that one could ever say about the music has already been said a million times because the music is absolutely infectious and irresistible, but how it also ties in with the film’s lack of a linear narrative allows it to become so much more wonderful. When you listen to the music, it can find itself transitioning between being highly energetic and angry about the patriarchy like a perfect punk rock anthem or incredibly soft, soothing, and maybe even heartbreaking – and yet it all still stays true towards the internalized conflict that Hedwig is dealing with. When coming out from the mouth of John Cameron Mitchell, you watch the glamour as a representation of how it feels to be able to connect with oneself just like you would in many of the best musicians (as noted, there is a sequence where Hedwig discusses how their love for many beloved rock music icons had come about going from David Bowie to Lou Reed). But it’s most important to recognize how it all ties together with Hedwig trying their best to express how good it really feels to simply be Hedwig in a “wicked little town,” that only accepts the sight of normalcy even if it does not represent the truth.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is an amazingly life-affirming journey about one’s own love for art, and how their own work can only define themselves – but also as an anthem for queerness. In searching for that “other half,” the journey that John Cameron Mitchell brings his own audience to discover is where his viewers would even find their own other halves. But watching it as a person who has also struggled with their own gender identity, watching Hedwig and the Angry Inch just leaves me wondering how I can truly express myself – yet it helps me feel good about being able to express it at all. It’s a perfect testimony to how an artist’s work comes to define themselves too, from the music and the energy of the performances, but also a film all about how good it feels to be able to break free from the boundaries of what people would expect from the restrictions imposed on them by society. But like all the best musicals, every song one after the other is excellent, and most importantly so is the feeling of listening to it. Through the glamorous performance as Hedwig, what John Cameron Mitchell has created is a voice to help people come closer to acknowledging their true selves for that’s what being yourself should truly feel like on the inside. Yet it’s also the perfect middle finger to those who still try to impose those boundaries upon the extent to which they consume media that reflects a certain sort of person, because those who can say “no” would always try and tear them down – but they’ll still see Hedwig feeling good about every second of the show.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via New Line Cinema.
Directed by John Cameron Mitchell
Screenplay by John Cameron Mitchell, from the musical by Mitchell and Stephen Trask
Produced by Christine Vachon, Katie Roumel, Pamela Koffler
Starring John Cameron Mitchell, Andrea Martin, Michael Pitt, Miriam Shor
Release Date: July 20, 2001
Running Time: 92 minutes