VINTAGE REVIEW: Hedwig And The Angry Inch (2001) *****
Starring: John Cameron Mitchell, Miriam Shor, Stephen Trask, Andrea Martin, Michael Pitt
Director: John Cameron Mitchell
The rock musical is inarguably a niche genre, but one from which many cult classics have emerged. Be these of stage or screen, this variety tends to draw in passionate fans due to their tongue in cheek humour, adrenaline fuelled numbers and dramatic plots. But even within this realm of much-loved cinema, there are standouts that captivate audiences in new ways. Hedwig and the Angry Inch is one of these stand-outs, with a large fandom that has fallen in love with its queer voice and spectacle.
The film follows Hedwig (Mitchell) and her band 'The Angry Inch' as they pursue fame by performing at any venue that will take them. All the while, Hedwig struggles against Tommy Gnosis (Pitt), a former band member turned superstar from whom Hedwig wants due credit for song-writing. But Tommy is far from the antagonist of the film, and this battle is not the crux of the plot as it might first seem. Instead, most of the film is constructed of Hedwig's history, as displayed through her own creative eyes and her delusions of stardom. But more than anything the film is a story of contrast and conflict; who and what Hedwig comes into conflict with and how she survives.
Mitchell's performance as Hedwig, alongside his writing and directing of the feature, drives every inch of this film. 'Captivating' doesn't do this role justice. We never want her to leave the shot, and her ever-changing looks and narratives keep us hooked on every word and movement. On and off the stage (well, one could argue she never leaves her stage), every line is a killer and every story draws you in. But everyone around her doesn't seem to see her the way we do, and this opposition between band and audience drives a lot of the plot and adds to the surreal atmosphere of the film. Imagine if Dr Frank N. Furter stumbled upon Janet and Brad's house instead of the other way around; a dramatic performer and over-the-top character, surrounded by people who 'just don't get it'.
Obvious comparisons can be made with The Rocky Horror Picture Show due to the glam rock, sing-along, cult style of each film, but Hedwig tells a far more fascinating story of growth and change. It is from this contrast between the uninterested world and the Angry Inch that most of the comedy emerges. Hedwig is performing to a loving audience that just haven't arrived yet, on a stage that is far bigger in her mind. The band performs in an empty field, or in a café that has less people eating at the end of the performance than at the start, or at a bar where the reaction is so bad a fight literally breaks out. But through this all, Hedwig and her band perform as though they were in a room of screaming fans. This is obviously a show of their character, but also creates some highly comedic moments.
While minor characters all have their own stories to tell, perhaps Miriam Shor's Yitzhak is the most prevalent, none seem to carry as much importance as Hedwig. One of the film's few downfalls is the lack of exploration of these other characters, be they band members or lovers, we fail to understand who we see follow Hedwig throughout her life. Beyond her mother, Tommy and Yitzhak, no other characters get much development, if any. Even Hedwig's first husband Luther is a small addition to the piece.
A musical above all else, the songs lend themselves to the story in a fascinating way. Functioning both as narrative pieces and plot devices within the film world, each track explains a little bit more about Hedwig and the people she comes into contact with. The songs aren't just catchy numbers that allow characters to express emotions, they are the very thing that drives Hedwig forward. Beyond simply being an element of the film, the songs are powerful in themselves. 'Tear Me Down' and 'Wig In A Box' are stand-outs that could stand alone, as could most of the tracks, all of which translate perfectly from stage to screen.
For most of the film, stylistically there is nothing shocking, at least for a low budget film from 2001 that is. But when we see Hedwig at her most explosive and open, the style is amped up to a 10. We get sequences which are creatively shot and edited, with fantastic sets littered with symbolism. All rules go out the window, and we fall into trippy, music video aesthetics that take us out of the reality of the film and into the mind of the titular character. It's during these sequences that the film finds itself; when song lyrics appear on the screen with Hedwig cheering us to join in, when a fully grown Hedwig takes the place of her childhood self in East Berlin, when Emily Hubley's animations tell the story of 'The Origin Of Love'. In these moments, the film really reveals its heart.
Overall, the movie tells a story of strength; with each turn, Hedwig has a new challenge to face, as do the people around her. And all of her ego and confidence is a reflection of this strength, and we get to follow her as the thrives in spite of adversity, her spirit explained through back stories and reflections.