Hedwig is the rare instance of a film adaptation that works better than an earlier incarnation.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that not only does Hedwig and the Angry Inch hold up better than ever, but that the 2001 film remains the definitive version of this remarkable work. Its source material, a stage show that debuted in New York’s Meatpacking District in 1998, was, from the start, far ahead of its time. A cult phenomenon that offered a harder, deeper, and weirder contrast to Rent during its original run, Hedwig required only minor updates to keep it current when it schlepped uptown, 16 years later, for a celebrated Broadway revival starring Neil Patrick Harris. That the Broadway production, which is currently on tour, became a genuine commercial smash is delicious, poetic even. The film – which starred its director John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig’s creator and the first of many actors to wear that iconic wig onstage) – was a box office flop. Happily, being “internationally ignored” isn’t a gripe our beleaguered protagonist can hold against the universe any longer.
Hedwig is the rare instance of a film adaptation that works better than an earlier incarnation. (The Wizard of Oz being the ur-example here.) The stage production is essentially a one-woman performance, a loud and (seemingly) improvisational rock concert doubling as a devastating memoir. Mitchell’s film dramatizes large portions of Hedwig’s oral exposition, while also remaining true to the conversational and catty tone of its theatrical source. It’s a classic example of “show versus tell,” with “show” (surprise, surprise) offering a far superior narrative method.
Comparisons to the theatrical work duly noted, it has to be said: Hedwig and the Angry Inch is undoubtedly the greatest rock musical ever to grace the silver screen, probably the finest stage-to-film adaptation since West Side Story, and arguably the most powerful picture in the entire queer-film canon. Mitchell’s achievement as a director can’t be overstated. He took a skeletal stage production, yes a fabulous skeletal stage production, and turned rags and bones into a gleaming ivory statuette draped in a paint-splattered mink stole.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch begins and ends in a dark alleyway. It opens with Hedwig decked out in full drag regalia and closes with her laid bare. It’s a literal example of the figurative stripping away that happens over the course of the film. As Hedwig tells her story, through exposition, flashback, and song, layers are torn off and discarded. Born Hansel (a “slip of a girlyboy”) in East Berlin, she undergoes a botched sex change operation to escape communism with Luther (Maurice Dean Wint), an American soldier. Soon after being dumped into a Kansas trailer park, Luther in turn dumps her for a boy toy. Hedwig starts a band, falls in love with a young man named Tommy (Michael Pitt) and, through a fruitful songwriting collaboration, eventually transforms him into a Billy Corgan-esque superstar. But Hedwig’s anatomy becomes a blockade: Tommy is spooked by the small fleshy remainder of a penis between her legs, that titular bulge. He leaves her behind and enjoys great commercial success. Hedwig, uncredited, is back to square one and betrayed yet again.
This thin gruel of a plot becomes the rich material from which the movie mines endless pathos. Hedwig’s pain, and eventual redemption, is the real story here. Hedwig succeeds thanks to Stephen Trask’s songs, all of them superlative, and each one, however bitter and bruised their lyrics may be, bursts with optimism and verve. It’s hard to pick a favorite because they’re all showstoppers. But if only one were to survive for posterity, it should be “Origin of Love”, a Plato-inspired, multi-genre fantasia. The song itself is astonishing, but Mitchell’s performance is greater still. The tender, scarlet smile he offers in a tight shot as he sings about love (“the pain that cuts a straight line down through the heart”), after a long tour of mythology and conflicting emotions, never ceases to drop my jaw. It’s the kind of magic only a musical, that intersection of sound and visuals, can offer.
Hedwig seems, at least on the page, dejected and fuming. But Hedwig and the Angry Inch is joyous and, it should be noted, hilarious. Mitchell workshopped his Borscht Belt drag routine for years before filming started. As such, the jokes land with megaton punchlines and genuine laughs. The humor is sharp, at times scathing, sometimes dirty. And it’s that wit that keeps Hedwig, our melancholy heroine, from ever seeming truly tragic. She’s a happy warrior, knocked around here and there, but never torn down.
The film gets increasingly poignant as it approaches its triumphant and somewhat opaque conclusion. Hedwig eventually rips off her wig once and for all, and during the glorious “Midnight Radio” sequence hands it over to her husband Yitzhak (Miriam Shor), who then transforms into a glam queen. So the cycle continues, and gender, a fluid, moves from one vessel to another. Hedwig wanders dazedly down that aforementioned alleyway, and movie musicals, consequently, are left to shiver in the wake of her naked ass.