Hedwig and the Angry Inch

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Cleolinda: *** 1/2

Starring John Cameron Mitchell, Michael Pitt, Miriam Shor, Andrea Martin, Stephen Trask. Directed by Mitchell, based on his stage play; music and lyrics by Trask.

Rated R for sexual content and language.

Okay, wow. I’m catching up on reviews alphabetically today, and my head really, really hurts from writing that
Grinch review. (I think I did give myself an aneurysm.)

Moving on. I saw Hedwig last night on DVD, and I was totally prepared to be horrified. Pleasantly so, but still—drag queen rock star, failed sex change, etc., etc. (Thank God you do not ever have to see the Angry Inch with your own eyes.) There’s a temptation, after reading synopses of the film, to say to yourself, “Oh, it’s a film version of a drag rock stage show—campiness ensues, a good time was had by all. What’s on cable tonight?” Don’t dismiss this one out of hand, because it’s about so much more than drag. This is a film about gender, sex, and identity...but most of all (to crib a line from Moulin Rouge), love. Young Hansel’s introduction to homosexuality in East Berlin is through an American G.I. who thinks he’s a girl; after finding out otherwise, hesi-tates—and goes after Hansel anyway, luring him with American candy. Hedwig is, in fact, his mother—whose identity he assumes, at her urging, when the G.I. says he’ll marry Hansel and take him to the States. Desperate to get her son out of Communist Berlin, it’s Hedwig who seconds the G.I.’s plan to get Hansel a sex change (to sneak him through the physical examination necessary to get the marriage license). Once they’re in the States, the G.I. apparently realizes that he’s got a taste for boys after all and leaves “Hedwig” for a younger, blonder model. Oh, and the Berlin Wall falls in short order—meaning that if Hedwig had waited a bit longer to leave Germany, he wouldn’t have needed the surgery that didn’t even work, and left him without a working model of either sex, just “an angry inch” (yikes). So Hedwig turns to music— and scary ultra-femme drag—for comfort.

Folks, this is just, like, the first fifteen minutes. And in case you’re wondering about my earlier statement that Hedwig might not be gay, well—obviously he’s gay because even after the marriage of convenience to the G.I. (whom he did love), he moves on to his next great love, future “rock icon” Tommy Gnosis, but my point is that this is not a movie that depends on the stereotypes of what a gay person or a transvestite is or is not. There’s a sex scene early in the movie in which—I can’t believe I’m actually describing this—Hedwig gets into bed with one of the Angry Inch bandmembers, and, as Valerie said, “Awww, they’re spooning.” And then—“Oh…well…no, they’re not.” Yeah. And the general consensus—I’m watching this with Friend of Digest Valerie and The Lovely Emily—was mostly, Ew, he could have asked first. But thirty minutes later we remembered that Hedwig only had an “inch,” so—what was that about? And then much later we found out who band member Yitzhak, who looked really unhappy during this romantic interlude, really was, and we were really, really confused. (Just keep an eye on Yitzhak—the stubbly bandanna-headed one. Who looks a lot like Jason Lee. You’ll thank me later.)

My point—and I did have one—is that this is less a film about what it’s like to be gay or a transvestite and more what it’s like to be in love, to be spurned, to recover. There’s a beautiful motif of symmetry in the film: Hansel/Hedwig repeats his mother’s mistake of romancing a G.I. He shadows Tommy Gnosis, the “beautiful” but rather untalented teen (Michael Pitt—frighteningly, best known as the earnest Henry on Dawson’s Creek) who ran off with all Hedwig’s songs to find fame and fortune, while Hedwig and his band The Angry Inch play at a “Bilgewater’s” restaurant in every city that Tommy tours. There’s a beautiful song—the first one, I think, “Origin of Love”—explaining the mythological idea that we were all split in half at creation and that we eternally seek our other half. (The exposition of the song is helped along by some Seuss-on-crack animation. Um, yeah. Is anyone else thinking of Shel Silverstein’s “The Missing Piece” right now? Because it’s not unlike that. With animated genitals. Yeah.) So of course Tommy is Hedwig’s missing half, and Hedwig is hellbent on either getting back with him or at him.

So when Hedwig finally hits rock bottom, it brings about Tommy’s own fall (long story —see the movie yourself), thereby elevating Hedwig to the height of success—the Times Square Bilgewater’s (don’t laugh). And—I don’t want to spoil anything for you, so you might want to quit reading here, go rent the movie, and come back.

Back? Cool. The concert of triumph culminates in Hedwig ripping off his drag in a frenzy. And then it gets weird. I’m not really sure what happened next—he goes to see Tommy singing down the street (I think), wet and wigless and naked but for some shorts and definitely looking like a guy, with Tommy’s signature cross daubed on his head, and damn if they don’t look like mirror images, one on stage and one in the aisle. And Tommy sings him what sounds like a reply to “Origin of Love”: There is no missing half. It doesn’t work that way. No one else can complete you.

And that’s when the movie hits a completely different level of good, in my mind. Because when you’re told that a man missing his “manhood,” as it were, is searching for his “missing piece,” you would assume that the story would end up giving him love as a surrogate. But writer/director/star Mitchell is wiser than that, and knows that love is great, but other people cannot make you whole. So the stripped-down Hedwig returns to—what? It looks like another concert in an all-white room with his band dressed in white, which shouts symbolism or dream or heaven or something to me. Anyway. He sings without his drag, and gives the drag (wig, gown, etc.) to Yitzhak and lets him go—he was kinda keeping Yitzhak’s passport and holding him hostage, and I so totally do not trust that you actually stopped reading this review and got the movie before reading this part, so I’m STILL not going to tell you what’s so cool about this part, even though I would love to. So there.

Suffice it to say, the movie took a completely different turn—yes, the drag was a wonderful vehicle to express Hedwig’s rage and heartache, but at what point was it just artifice to hide behind? At what point do we have to forgive and move on? At what point are we responsible for our own completion? In other words: Drag queen musical my ass. This movie is so much more than that. Go rent it. Come on, I’m begging, okay?
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Hedwig and the Angry Inch on DVD
The Hedwig and the Angry Inch film soundtrack
Hedwig and the Angry Inch original cast recording
Hedwig on DVD

Hedwig on CD

Original Hedwig
cast recording