“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is one of my favorite film of the last decade, if not ever. It’s got the perfect mix of clever lines, emotional depth, conversation factor, trippy visuals, rewatchability and it’s got a badass soundtrack to boot. This is a great movie AND a great musical. Most musicals function as one or the other. Either it’s got a great story and OK music or fantastic music and a slim story. This film could be told as a straight narrative and remain compelling, but is even better for the inclusion of song.
“Hedwig” tells the tragicomic tale of Hansel, a young boy born in the USSR who, after a childhood marred by sexual abuse, undergoes a sex-change operation so he can marry an American soldier and escape Soviet Russia. The proceedure does not go well, resulting in the titular “angry inch.” The marriage is equally successful.
After her marriage fails, Hansel (now Hedwig) is forced to make it on her own, performing odd jobs (mostly of the “hand” and “blow” varieties) to make ends meet. Eventually, she forges an unlikely friendship with Tommy Speck, a young Christian boy for whom she babysits. Tommy introduces Hedwig to The Eagles, and she introduces him to a firm wrist and a kung fu grip. The duo writes songs together — songs about life, love and philosophical theories. Everything is going fine until Speck runs off one day and reinvents himself as Tommy Gnosis, a goth-rock lothario. As Gnosis, Tommy quickly gains fame and fortune, singing songs that Hedwig penned.
Hedwig gives chase, playing dive bars and family restaurants next to every arena on Gnosis’ world tour. Finally, the two reunite in the front seat of a stretch limo during an alcohol-fueled evening that comes to a disastrous and humiliating end.
On paper, this all sounds pretty unpleasant, but in motion, “Hedwig” is a pure joy to watch. It probably helps that most of the more grotesque details are glossed over in song form. But this is not merely some freak show or Todd Browning burlesque act of debauchery. Instead, “Hedwig” is the most unlikely of things: a winning love story.
The film, written, directed and starring Mitchell, overflows with emotion. Though the film’s plot often asks us to suspend our disbelief, and Hedwig’s dialogue is closer to the puny shtick of Groucho Marx than to the harsh drama of Harold Pinter, Hedwig never feels anything less than totally human. It is impossible not to feel for Hedwig. Even as her actions grow more and more ugly, she remains compelling.
Underneath all the riot-gRRL shrieking and solipsistic grandstanding, Mitchell imbues his protagonist with layers of subtle, nuanced pain. You can read her track marks and razor-blade scars like a book. Hedwig has had her body colonized by others, her life’s work stolen by her lover and her mind held hostage by her own delusions of grandeur.
But all this still makes the movie sound like a downer, and this is simply not the case. Every moment of the film shines with a vibrant vitality, a lust for life and a zest for experience. It cannot be contained through anything short of bursting out into song.
This is one of them newfangled, post-modern musicals, calling on the audience’s knowledge of cultural and gender studies work by Baudrillard, Foucault and Judith Butler and structuring itself so as to explain away the cast’s constantly breaking into song. Hedwig performs a lot, and the majority of the songs are framed by her debauchery-filled live act. I don’t really know why the filmmakers did this. No one is going to be fooled into thinking this is not a musical. What’s more, I think that the target audience for a rock musical about a post-modern transsexual performance artist based largely on Plato’s Symposium is probably an audience that will forgive a few song-and-dance numbers. Especially when the songs are this good.
I listen to the soundtrack to this movie about once a month. All of the tracks are catchy, and many of the couplets are very memorable; “Hedwig” delivers pop with pathos while the pithy, ironic dance numbers of “Midnight Radio” turn gender performatives into the perfect recipe for pop. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along and you’ll probably want to show it to friends. Heck, it might even help you pass your feminist studies or philosophy classes.