Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Screenplay: John Cameron Mitchell
Based on a Play by: John Cameron Mitchell & Stephen Trask
Starring: John Cameron Mitchell, Miriam Shor, Michael Pitt, Stephen Trask , Theodore Liscinski, Rob Campbell, Michael Aronov, Andrea Martin
Running Time: 92 min
A little like Little Shop of Horrors and The Producers, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a film that has enjoyed success in different guises on both stage and screen. It maybe hasn’t ever made enormous amounts of money, but has a large cult following and has been well received by critics. It started life as a kind of performance art piece, devised by actor John Cameron Mitchell and musician Stephen Trask and put on in a hip drag club in New York. In 1998 that developed into an award-winning Off-Broadway play that attracted celebrity audiences, even if it didn’t make its creators rich. Mitchell was later approached with the idea of turning the play into a film and those around him convinced him he was the best person to direct and star in it. The film was a smash at Sundance in 2001, winning the Audience, Grand Jury and Directing awards at the festival, and went on to be a cult favourite. The success of the film and continued success of the play led to it finally being turned into a Broadway show in 2014, picking up a Tony Award for its efforts. It’s even toured the world and regularly plays in countries as far out as South Korea and Japan.
The film is soon to be released on Blu-Ray in the UK by those wonderful folk at the Criterion Collection, who have polished it up and lavished it with a multitude of features new and old. I hadn’t seen Hedwig prior to this, but I’ve had a hit and miss relationship with John Cameron Mitchell as a director. I thought Rabbit Hole was very good, but Shortbus did little for me, seemingly intent on shocking rather than saying anything that resonated with me. I do enjoy a good off-beat musical though and the strong reviews helped convince me I should check Hedwig out. So I came to the film hoping for and expecting something wild and outrageous, if a bit shallow, that I might enjoy. There is a lot of crazy stuff here and I had fun with Hedwig, yet I was surprised when I got something that was so much more.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch tells the story of transexual punk-rocker Hedwig (played by Mitchell himself), who is embarking on a tour of low-rent family diners (all part of the fictional Bilgewater Inn chain) with her band The Angry Inch. The dates and locations have been selected to follow those of her ex-boyfriend and former musical partner Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), who is now a huge success, playing the songs they wrote together (and some Hedwig wrote herself) to packed out arenas. Angry, jealous and heartbroken, she relates to her audiences the story of what brought her to this state, largely through song. Hedwig also takes a lot out on her current husband Yitzhak (Miriam Shor). As backing singer to his wife, Yitzhak idolises Hedwig but is increasingly frustrated at being forcefully pushed back from centre stage and can see that Hedwig’s heart and mind are not on him. He is also drawn to Hedwig’s bewigged drag-queen style and longs to adopt it for himself.
It’s not a particularly long or complex story, but Hedwig manages to say a lot about identity through this unusual tale of botched sex-change jobs and gender-bending relationships. What impressed me was how this was done in such a focussed, touching and relatable fashion. Hedwig’s story, as outrageous and filled with fantastical, humorous flourishes as it can often be, is surprisingly moving and keeps its aim true and clear to even the ‘straightest’ of audiences. It’s as much about finding yourself following hard times and tragedy as much as it is about being a transexual or even being gay. Mitchell reportedly added elements of his own life into the script, which helps its passion and truth shine through. He isn’t a transexual or even a transvestite (other than when he’s playing Hedwig), but some of his past as a boy travelling from country to country with his Catholic military family and his eventual coming-out as a homosexual have made their way into the piece.
Hedwig is not a tough, slow personal drama though, it’s a riot of inventive filmmaking techniques, garish costumes and bawdy yet sharp humour. The film has a great energy and utterly unique character that blends the lurid and fantastical with enough naturalism to ground it in reality. There are unusual camera shots and animated sequences for instance, largely in the flashbacks, yet a fairly rough ‘true to life’ look to the lighting and film stock that brings you back to Earth in the present day segments.
Also vital to the success of Hedwig is the music. As the members of the Angry Inch are dressed up to portray, Stephen Trask’s songs fuse numerous genres to create a wonderfully catchy, diverse and memorable collection of songs. There are more than a few hints of David Bowie in there, a couple of ballads, songs at the heavier end of the rock spectrum and even a country number. Needless to say, I ordered a copy of the soundtrack on CD before the film was even over!
Wholly original and often enjoyably outlandish, yet with a touching story of identity crisis at its heart, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a layered and wonderfully crafted one-of-a-kind experience. With a host of excellent songs driving the film forward, it’s an unusual yet incredibly effective off-beat musical I’d recommend to anyone.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is out on 22nd July on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. It looks great, retaining the natural grain of the film stock and rich colours of the spectacle on screen. It sounds great too, with Trask’s superb soundtrack blasting through nicely.
There are plenty of special features included:
– New 4K digital restoration, supervised by director John Cameron Mitchell and cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack
– Audio commentary from 2001 featuring Mitchell and DeMarco
– New conversation among members of the cast and crew
– New conversation between composer and lyricist Stephen Trask and rock critic David Fricke about the film’s soundtrack
– Documentary from 2003 tracing the development of the project
– Close look at the film’s Adam and Eve sequence
– New programmes exploring Hedwig’s creation, look and legacy through its memorabilia
– Deleted scenes with commentary by Mitchell and DeMarco
– PLUS: An essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek, portraits of Hedwig by photographer Mick Rock, along with, illustrations by animator Emily Hubley, and excerpts from two texts that inspired the film: Plato’s Symposium and The Gospel of Thomas.
This is an absolutely superb set of features. The documentary is the jewel in the crown, running at feature length and covering the inception of Hedwig on stage through to the film. It’s very well made and fascinating throughout. The commentary is very good too, providing an enjoyable and honest account of the production and the history behind it. The deleted scenes are largely just extended sequences from the finished film, but they’re fun and worth a look. The other various interviews and conversations are fascinating and although there’s a little repetition, there’s always plenty of new information or insight in each piece to make them worthwhile. I particularly appreciated the conversation with Trask and Fricke as it offered a detailed look at the process of and inspirations behind writing the music. All the features work well to show how much passion went into the project from everyone involved.
The package as a whole then, including the wonderful film, is one of my favourite Blu-Ray releases of the year so far and comes very highly recommended.