Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
June 29, 2015 2:46 PM - Subscribe

John Cameron Mitchell writes, directs, and stars as the titular Hedwig Robinson — the sarcastic, bombastic, gender-binary-stomping front(wo)man of Mitchell's award-winning off-broadway musical by the same name — as she tours the country narrating, singing, and shouting her harrowing story from the shadow of ex-lover and rock-darling Tommy Gnosis's nationwide tour.

Although it struggled at the box office, the film went on to earn a devoted cult fanbase, eventually leading to a Tony-Award-winning 2014 on-Broadway revival variously starring Neil Patrick Harris, Darren Criss, Taye Diggs, Andrew Rannells, Michael C. Hall, and Mitchell himself reprising the role he (and songwriter Stephen Trask) made famous.
posted by churl (19 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The first time I sat down to watch Hedwig and the Angry Inch I had a hard time staying interested. My mom had rented it when I was home one weekend (19yr old college student) and thought we both would like it from the description. We turned it off less than half way through. A day later she brought home the soundtrack. We both listened to the soundtrack over and over for weeks. When we sat down again to watch it we were captivated and it became a favorite for both of us. The soundtrack is still on regular rotation at my house!
posted by Swisstine at 3:00 PM on June 29, 2015

I love the soundtrack, sure, but what really gets me are the hilarious lines throughout.

"One day in the late mid-eighties, I was in my early late-twenties. I had just been dismissed from University after delivering a brilliant lecture on the aggressive influence of German philosophy on rock 'n' roll entitled 'You, Kant, Always Get What You Want.'"

"Late at night I would listen to the voices of the American masters, Tony Tennille, Debby Boone, Anne Murray who was actually a Canadian working in the American idiom. And then there were the crypto-homo rockers: Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, David Bowie who was actually an idiom working in America ... and Canada."

"Travel exhausts me."

"The Communists gave her a job teaching sculpture to limbless children."

"Give it up, Kwang Yi! .... Give it up, Kwang."

I mean, it's so great! To this day, in moments of extreme frustration, I describe my university teaching job as "teaching sculpture to limbless children".
posted by chainsofreedom at 4:36 PM on June 29, 2015 [5 favorites]

I think it's an extraordinary film, so good that it's always made me sad and a little surprised that we haven't seen more great things from Mitchell and Trask, either separately or as a team. I've heard they've been working on a sequel following Hedwig as she* deals with the end of her aging mother's life. As curious as I'd be to see it, I have a feeling it'd be better left on the shelf.

It's ambiguous, but to me the film ends (spoiler warning) with Hedwig dying. There's the car crash, and then suddenly Hedwig is a star, then she says goodbye to Tommy is a vast, empty place, then she appears in this mysterious white place where she does a joyous final show, it's like a rock n' roll heaven, then we see her (on a seedy city street) naked and stumbling into the light, her tattoos indicating she's whole at last. At the very least it seems like the narrative is breaking down, things are becoming less literal as Hedwig begins some kind of rebirth. But to me it always seemed like we were seeing the last moments of her life, where she says her goodbyes and strips away all the artifice or her life, to begin a new journey.

My take on the ending left me wrecked, it was incredibly powerful. If the sequel shows us that I was all wrong about the ending, that Hedwig lives and goes back to deal with her mother's death and all that, I don't really get what the original film's ending does mean. It becomes a series of powerful dream-like scenes that suggest Hedwig is going through something profound. But what? If it's not a literal death, it seems like a really inconclusive ending.

*Hedwig's pronoun situation is tricky, but I'm using she because for most of the film Hedwig would probably identify as more she than he. But the character's true gender orientation is arguable, and especially by the end of the film I don't think we can say for sure if Hedwig would identify as male, female or something else.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 6:33 PM on June 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

You know how sometimes music can change your life? This soundtrack did that. I still get insanely hopeful and teary when I hear "Wig in a Box."
posted by Kitteh at 8:30 AM on June 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

"What poor creature had to die for you to wear that fur?!" My Aunt Trudy, I replied.
posted by dnash at 8:32 AM on June 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

The jokes are super clever and the soundtrack is catchy but I was always bothered by what I read as the message of Hedwig. Why does she end the film with short hair, (the only obvious external signifier of gender available when nude I guess?) Is she finding inner peace by embracing masculinity? I don't know, maybe I'm mis-reading.
posted by latkes at 9:13 AM on June 30, 2015

I have seen this film many times and I freely admit I'm still not sure what it's trying to say, nor could I really recall the details of the plot. But the music is amazing!
posted by chaiminda at 9:19 AM on June 30, 2015

I was always bothered by what I read as the message of Hedwig. Why does she end the film with short hair, (the only obvious external signifier of gender available when nude I guess?) Is she finding inner peace by embracing masculinity?

While the ending is ambiguous, (by design, according to something I read) - I think there's a general idea there and the language of your question points toward it. Your question almost sounds like you find the shedding of wig and drag to suggest Hedwig is rejecting her female side and returning to being Hansel, the male she originally was?

But why are male and female the only options?

The whole thing is about the struggle with binaries - it's even in the lyrics "East and West, male and female, top or bottom." The opening statement of the theme is in "The Origin of Love" which recounts the myth from Plato's "Symposium" that humans were once paired creatures who got cut in half by the gods, and now are doomed to seek out our other half (as if there's only one). Hansel was (I think) never really transgender, instead he was talked/forced into using a sex change as a means to escape East Germany, which left him stuck in a state neither fully male nor fully female, yet searching for a cosmically ordained other half. She thinks she finds it in Tommy Gnosis, until he can't handle it and leaves, taking her songs with him.

Ultimately Tommy shows up again singing:
You think that luck has left you there
But maybe there's nothing up in the sky but air
And there's no mystical design
No cosmic lover, pre-assigned
There's nothing you can find
That cannot be found

'Cause with all the changes you've been through
It seems the stranger's always you
Alone again in some new wicked little town..."
When Hedwig takes off the wig, (I believe), she's saying "ok, yeah, I'm not fully a woman, I'm not fully a man either, I'm rejecting the world of binaries and the search for an other half that has always left me unfulfilled and empty." The last song, "Midnight Radio," is an ode to a list of androgynous/misfit glam rockers and pop singers, and I feel like the mood is "for anyone who can't fit in the world as everyone else thinks it is, this is for you." Hedwig is walking out at the end embracing her/his wholeness, even if that's totally outside conventional definitions of gender, having realized that trying to play by those conventional rules has only led to heartbreak and disappointment.
posted by dnash at 8:31 PM on June 30, 2015 [12 favorites]

Nthing the praise for the music and the writing. It's amazing, and a bit of a shame that they didn't follow it up with something.
posted by snofoam at 6:42 PM on July 1, 2015

Tommy Gnosis and Billy Corgan are the same guy

I think Trask says something like that on the DVD. Billy Corgan was a very different character in 2001. Who would have dreamed that he would fall so far since then? Last I heard, he was crabbing because his wrestling reality show didn't get picked up.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:36 AM on July 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

My take on the ending left me wrecked, it was incredibly powerful. If the sequel shows us that I was all wrong about the ending, that Hedwig lives and goes back to deal with her mother's death and all that, I don't really get what the original film's ending does mean. It becomes a series of powerful dream-like scenes that suggest Hedwig is going through something profound. But what? If it's not a literal death, it seems like a really inconclusive ending.

We touch on this some in the podcast, but I think you're right in a sense. Hedwig does die at the end, symbolically -- but it's Hedwig the character/persona/shell, which leaves Hansel the human/inner-self stripped bare to start a new life. So yeah there's a lot of cinematic parallels with how films can portrays death / passing through the veil stuff, totally.

But I think because of where the car crash takes place in the chronology of events, Hansel/Hedwig did necessarily survive it. The limo bit is actually the final "flashback", and thus confusingly takes place before the entire Bilgewater's shadow-tour circuit that's kicking off at the very beginning of the movie (hence the slides Hedwig is showing of their tabloid covers during her shows). But the great thing about arranging the movie that way is they get to set up that arc you're describing and have it play out as a death/rebirth thing.

BTW: came across a great interview with John Cameron Mitchell on youtube that I really liked.
posted by churl at 12:10 PM on July 2, 2015

I question your chronology there. (I saw the film quite a few times when it was new but haven't seen it again for some time now, so it's possible my memory is faulty at this point.) I was under the impression that the car crash happens at the end of the story we've been following, after the tour and after the band has broken up. At that point Hedwig is desperate and working as a streetwalker, and she is stunned to get picked up by the very guy she's been following around the USA for the whole movie.

I just did a quick Youtube search for the Bilgewater performances but I wasn't able to find any of the tabloid stuff in those clips. I skimmed a transcript (no actual script online) where she tells a crowd about her lawsuit against Tommy, we see a magazine cover and she says it took a "character assassination piece like this" to make people finally pay attention. But without being able to see the film just now I'm not sure if the magazine article might just be about the lawsuit and/or Hedwig stalking Tommy. If you're right, that radically alters my take on the film.

The ending seems to flow directly from the crash. Not only does Hedwig have all this sudden, dreamlike success, she has the scene in the deserted concert hall where she makes peace with Tommy. If the crash happens BEFORE the rest of the film, the scenes at the end are even more baffling to me. What triggers Hedwig's death/rebirth/whatever, if it's not the crash?

But while the death stuff makes the most sense to me and seems like the most powerful ending, I would not be surprised to learn that wasn't the intention. It's a very strange, eccentric musical that evolved over years and is full of surreal things, and I wouldn't be totally certain of anything unless JCM or Trask said so.

I'll have to give your podcast a listen soon. It sounds interesting.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 10:59 PM on July 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

If it helps any, the stage version is definitely set at a following-Tommy show after the crash.

(But then the "present" of the stage version takes place entirely in one night's performance, not over the course of a tour; the film took advantage of its medium to frame things differently.)
posted by Shmuel510 at 9:42 AM on July 5, 2015

Well, as I said, I'm aware my interpretation of the film may be wrong... but if I am wrong, big chunks of the film become kind of baffling and a lot less powerful for me. Part of the reason why I wouldn't be thrilled with a sequel is that it would answer the question of Hedwig's fate in no uncertain terms. Did Hedwig die? Did she live and go on to embrace a masculine persona, or go back to living as a femme, or find some sort of middle ground? Did she ever find contentment? Did she find love? Did she continue as a musician? All of those questions would probably be answered in the first five minutes of a sequel, and maybe it's selfish but I prefer to not have those things all spelled out. That being said, JCM and Trask created such a great thing in Hedwig that it's possible they'd come up with something even better in a sequel.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 12:10 AM on July 6, 2015

For whatever it's worth... not entirely understanding Hedwig has been my experience of it from the start. And I think I'm okay with that.

I've seen four versions. The first was a few months into the original run at the Jane Street Theatre, starring John Cameron Mitchell. They'd been advertising in the college newspaper I was an editor at, and we'd somehow gotten comp tickets. I had never been to a professional stage musical. I had never been to a rock concert. I had practically no experience with glam rock in general. Or drag shows, for that matter. It kinda melted my brain. I had no idea how to begin parsing what I'd seen.

The second was the film, and all the props need to be given to JCM for the adaptation. The initial production of the show was very much grounded in the specific space it was in, and the later stage versions I've seen have had to deal with this, adapting to the stages they were on. For the film, he adapted it to an entirely different medium, with entirely different conventions for telling the story, and he did so brilliantly. (The loss of the Hedwig/Tommy doubling changes things, but I think it was the right call, under the circumstances.) And I still had no idea what exactly was going on at the end.

The third was a student production at Emerson College, which I enjoyed, and I don't really have much else to say about it. The fourth was Neil Patrick Harris, on Broadway. I had been convinced that he was miscast, and was happy to be proved wrong. He did it differently, and the dreadful cast album suggests that he got by largely on the strength of the terpsichorean acrobatics he brought to the role, but it's also possible that he just performs better with a live audience. Regardless, his version was still Hedwig.

And I still don't quite know what happens at the end. Clearly, Hedwig has a breakdown and epiphany. Clearly she achieves a sort of wholeness that has heretofore eluded her. (I personally don't think she dies at the end, but, again, I think it's harder to read that into the stage version.) But what the nature of that wholeness is, I don't know. Nor do I know what comes next for her (or for Yitzhak. Yitzhak damn near stealing the show has been a constant across the stage performances; Miriam Shor and Lena Hall were both brilliant). It's been seventeen years since I first started grappling with this, and clearly part of me is still working at it, because I keep going back to see new versions. But on the whole, I've come to terms with not fully understanding it.

Would a sequel ruin that? I don't know. But if JCM were writing it, I would be inclined to trust him.

(None of this is meant to invalidate your experience and interpretation of the film. The thread's winding down, and I'm just woolgathering.)
posted by Shmuel510 at 10:10 AM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

But it's interesting woolgathering! I've never seen the stage version but IIRC I read it years ago in script form. I'd kind of forgotten the Hedwig/Tommy doubling stuff. Damn, that is one strange show. Kind of bizarre how it's become such a Broadway staple.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:40 PM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

shmuel510, there's no insane crazy chance we were at the same performance, is there? My partner and I were at the last-night-before-opening-night performance (at the Belasco w NPH) and it just soared
posted by churl at 6:33 PM on July 7, 2015

'Fraid not! I was there later, almost exactly a year ago. (So, okay, by that point the reviews were in and I was already aware that NPH had somehow pulled it off. I still wanted to see for myself, though.)

My sisters and I camped out on the standing-room rush ticket line starting around 10:30 AM. Said sisters' prior knowledge was confined to the title and three facts: (a) NPH was starring in it, (b) it won a bunch of Tonys, and (c) issues of gender and sexuality were somehow involved. As one of them said after the many hours in the hot sun followed by 80 minutes of standing through the show itself, "it's a good thing the play was worth it."
posted by Shmuel510 at 6:49 PM on July 7, 2015

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