Hedwig and the Angry Inch Review
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the second of two innovative musical films of 2001, both of which deal with a central theme of love, but each from a very different perspective. However, unlike Moulin Rouge, Hedwig was made on a fairly small budget and entailed adapting a successful off-Broadway show for the big screen. The original stage show took the form of a rock concert where the singer took time out between numbers to recount her interesting life story. In the film version we see Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell) and her band, the Angry Inch, playing in seedy restaurants while touring the USA, following – some would say 'stalking' – the tour of the far more successful musician Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt).
As the film progresses Hedwig begins to open up and to recount her life story to the audience. Growing up as a young boy in Communist East Berlin with a stern mother and an absent GI father, Hansel (Hedwig's name at birth) listens to American Forces radio and begins to find some solace in music. Hansel's mother tells him a Platonic myth as a bedtime story, a tale of how once people had four legs and arms, two heads and were complete. But the gods decide that humanity is becoming too powerful and split each of these complete beings into two, dispersing them around the globe...and from that moment on, every human being is subconsciously searching for his or her 'other half'. This tale resonates with the young Hansel, who feels he's not quite complete. The song that accompanies the tale (The Origin of Love) was the first one completed for the musical and its underlying message of finding your other half permeates the entire film.
We then learn that as a teenager he becomes the toyboy of Luthor, a GI who offers to marry him and to take him away from Berlin, as long as Hansel has a sex change operation. However, the operation goes slightly awry, leaving Hansel with an 'angry inch' of flesh. Happy that her son is going to find freedom, Hansel’s mother offers her passport and thus the name change to Hedwig. The following year we see Luthor leave Hedwig for a younger man. Hedwig is at her lowest. It's her first anniversary and she's getting divorced. She's living in a trailer park in the middle of nowhere and on the TV she watches the Berlin Wall coming down. She turns to music to find solace and begins to play local small venues with a cobbled together band made up of army wives. She also babysits for the local General, and this is where Tommy comes into the story.
Tommy is the older son of the family and, attracted to him, Hedwig manages an encounter before hinting to Tommy that he come and hear her play. And so the relationship starts to grow. Tommy asks Hedwig to teach him, about love, about life and about music and she does so until Tommy can perform with her at her gigs. It's an unbalanced relationship though, with sex but no kissing and when Hedwig forces the issue by trying to have a frank discussion with Tommy, and with Tommy’s realisation of Hedwig's sex change, Tommy runs away, leaving Hedwig alone again. He also steals her songs and begins to popularise them as his pop alter-ego, Tommy Gnosis.
And this is where we find Hedwig, ever in the shadow of the great Tommy Gnosis, the protégé she is desperately in love with and unable to get close to. She travels the country, playing at Bilgewater's Restaurants with her bandmembers (one of which is Stephen Trask, the genius behind the music and the lyrics of the film), her Croatian husband Yitzhak (Miriam Shor), and her pushy manager Phyllis Stein (Andrea Martin). All the time Hedwig is really trying to get close to Tommy and his versions of her songs seem to haunt her even when visiting a shopping mall. There is a brief nod towards Yitzhak's story as we see him considering auditioning for the role of a drag queen in Rent (another very successful Broadway musical), when performing in drag is the one thing Hedwig has made him swear not to do. When Yitzhak gets the part, Hedwig enforces her power over him by ripping up his passport in one of the cruellest moments of the film.
Hedwig and Tommy are reunited eventually in a bittersweet moment that takes Hedwig's star into the ascendant and leads up to the finale of the film, which deals with locating your other half and letting others have their freedom.
This plot summary doesn't do full justice to the inventiveness of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The musical numbers really make the film; the lyrics and music have a firm basis in rock music – sometimes thrashing, sometimes poignant – and they flesh out the characters and the plot. Trask's music takes in a number of styles, including punk, rock, traditional musical numbers and ballads, all of which have been funked up for the movie with contributions by Bob Mould of Hüsker Du and Sugar fame. The narrative is sharp and witty, and you laugh even when the situations being described are as sad as one can imagine. Emily Hubley’s animation sequences also help to flesh out the storyline without encroaching annoyingly on the live action. They also hark back to the stage play where the animations (in a somewhat cruder form) were projected above the stage.
John Cameron Mitchell, who wrote and directed the film as well as starring as Hedwig, has created a truly unique experience which breathes life into the rock musical form and which is a true pleasure to watch as a film. The cast all provide good satellite performances around Mitchell's stunning portrayal of Hedwig; particularly outstanding are Miriam Shor (who delivers her husky lines well and completely convinces as Yitzhak) and Andrea Martin (who provides a hilarious performance as Hedwig's manager, reminding us of the stand-up comedy influence on the script).
As with all the New Line Platinum Series DVDs I've watched, the video quality is excellent, especially given the low budget origins of the film. The colours of all of the footage in the ongoing story are deep and vivid, whilst the flashback sequences hearkening back to Hedwig's past in Berlin draw upon a bleach bypass process to create a grainy East European verisimilitude. In fact, the picture quality seemed better on the DVD than I remember it appearing in the cinema.
Hedwig revolves around the music which fortifies it, and as such the sound quality is very important for one’s enjoyment of the film. Both DD 5.1 and DTS surround options are included on the DVD and the music sounds sharper and richer than I had expected after having seen it in the cinema (where it was all a bit woolly). The source material means that the surround presence doesn’t always need to make itself known, but this doesn't detract from the clean, crisp soundtrack and brilliant dialogue.
The first feature of note is a Filmmaker Commentary, where John Cameron Mitchell and Frank de Marco (Director of Photography) talk through the filmmaking process. The majority of comments detail the technical process, with an interesting insight into making a film on a very tight, small budget. We get to hear about how many cameras they could afford for any one day, which songs were recorded live and which lip-synched so that Mitchell would not lose his voice and how all the restaurants in the film are in fact one restaurant dressed to look different each time. Along with these insights we get the occasional gem about casting or information on how the film differs from the stage play and where. We also learn how many of the walk-on cast are friends of Mitchell's or members of the crew. The commentary is lively and witty and definitely one of the more enjoyable ones I’ve watched. I was only surprised by how little was said about the original off-Broadway play...but then I watched the documentary included on the DVD and discovered why!
Whether You Like It or Not – The Story of Hedwig is definitely one of the best DVD documentaries I’ve had the pleasure to watch and epitomises everything such a documentary should be. Far from being essentially an extended trailer (which many other recent films have attempted to pass off as 'documentaries') this 85-minute presentation genuinely adds to your enjoyment of the film and includes some really great information. It basically tells the entire story of Hedwig, from inception to its film reception at Sundance (where it won both Best Director and the Audience Award). It takes you from Mitchell and Trask’s first meeting on an airline, through the development of the Hedwig stage experience (including some amateur footage of the first appearance by Hedwig at a gay nightclub in NYC while Mitchell was developing the character). Other things not usually found on DVD documentaries include comments by Mitchell's parents as well as a home video that captured his family's reaction to the awards ceremony at Sundance. It really is a very impressive addition to the DVD, also including short interviews with other actors who've played the title role in Hedwig over the years. These included Michael Cerveris (who played Hedwig for 3 months in London) and Kevin Cahoon (who took the role to the Edinburgh Festival in 2001), both of which I've had the pleasure of seeing perform live on stage.
The Deleted Scenes section of the DVD only includes two actual segments, both of which can be viewed with or without commentary. The first is actually a number of deleted scenes all from one sequence and is over 10 minutes long. The second is under 2 minutes in length and qualifies as more standard deleted scene fare.
Another great feature on this DVD is the Select-a-Song one, which lets you jump straight to every song in the film. For anyone who isn’t already very conversant with Hedwig, having seen it on stage or having listened to the soundtrack or original cast recording over and over, I'd heartily recommend using the captions feature and listening to the songs through this menu option. The lyrics really are worth paying attention to, and this feature makes that an easy and accessible option.
Cast and Crew Filmographies are exactly as you’d expect and nicely presented as is the Trailer (which in my opinion is very well executed – giving enough of an insight into the content and style of the film without ruining the storyline or revealing all of the funniest moments).
Finally, there is some DVD-ROM content, mainly the original Hedwig website. It's a nice – if not essential – addition and worth checking out, mainly because it's been put together well.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a powerful rock musical, set firmly in modernity with its explorations of sexuality, relationships, power, freedom and love. The dialogue is witty and sincere, the music diverse and intense and the acting performed with love for the piece. It also seems as if everyone who had anything to do with the production has an amazing fondness for the material and had great fun bringing the film to fruition. It may not be everyone's cup of tea – the subject matter sure isn't Disney – but if you want to watch an interesting and unique film, you could do a lot worse than buying Hedwig and the Angry Inch.