John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch was one of the most delightful surprises of 2001, and it has lost none of its charm or its surprising power in the intervening years. Mitchell seems determined—based on two films as of 2010—to take the most outlandish, outrageous and potentially offensive material and turn it into something so sweet-tempered and human that it’s irresistable. That’s certainly the case here with the saga of transexual East German rocker Hansel/Hedwig (Mitchell) and his/her attempts to find happiness and success in the U.S. Raunchy, campy and satirical the film may be, but it’s finally a story of self-discovery and self-realization that makes it something else again.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a film that very much benefits from multiple viewings. Much as I’d admired it on its original release, it was only after its release to DVD that I truly came to appreciate every aspect of the film. (That’s also why—if anyone bothers to check—it didn’t make my Top 10 list for 2001. A year later—and even today—it would hold the number two position. I blame New Line for not sending out screeners during award season.) This is not to say that it’s a film for everybody (whatever that exactly means). First of all, the story about a rock star (even an “internationally ignored” one) who is the victim of a botched sex-change operation—leaving him with the angry inch of the title—is not going to be to everyone’s liking. Nor is the manner the film plays with gender identity going to be comfortable for everyone.
For that matter, there are some viewers who will simply have problems with the rock music itself—and make no mistake, Stephen Trask’s songs are rock. A few of them—especially “The Origin of Love” and “Wig in a Box”—qualify as lighter, more broadly accessible numbers, but most are straight up glam-rock pieces. In fact, the film itself finally feels as much—or more—like a concept album than it does a movie. Its ending sequence is given over to three songs without dialogue being involved, and the line between reality and fantasy is completely blurred, offering a climax that is more felt than literally depicted. Indeed—as I said some time back in a piece on John Cameron Mitchell—the very end of the film has an effect that is more like the cumulative punch of listening to David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars—with “Midnight Radio” taking the place of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”—than anything else. But why not? After all, Bowie in that era was one of the most inherently cinematic of all rock musicians.
Still, I hope people will try to overcome their prejudices—musical or otherwise—and see what a unique and remarkable film Mitchell made with this.