The Criterion Odyssey
Writer/Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Based on the musical by John Cameron Mitchell & Stephen Trask
Cast: John Cameron Mitchell, Michael Pitt, Miriam Shor, Andrea Martin
Cinematography: Frank G. DeMarco
Music: Stephen Trask
Songs & Lyrics: John Cameron Mitchell & Stephen Trask
Release: July 20, 2001
Becoming comfortable in our own skin is a lifelong process, and I doubt another film inhabits this theme more entirely than “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” It may be glossy, loud and made up to the nines, but when that’s stripped away, all it wants to show us is that it’s okay to seek out who you truly are… no matter what form that takes.
And there has never been another human like Hedwig (played by writer/director John Cameron Mitchell). Born a boy in East Berlin, Hedwig (then Hansel) found a sugar daddy who would be willing to take him to America… if he has a sex change operation. Hansel is initially hesitant, and the surgery goes horribly awry, leaving a one-inch mound of flesh. Now named Hedwig, the moment they get to America, her sugar daddy leaves her, sending her into a spiral of depression until she pulls herself out of it thanks to blonde wigs, make-up and some great eye shadow. Oh, and she’s a brilliant composer who wants to be a rock star.
Hedwig falls in love with the son of a guy she babysits for (Michael Pitt), gives him the stage name Tommy Gnosis and begins to sing with him. But then he steals all the music they co-composed and becomes a Mick Jagger-style superstar, heading around the country on a sold-out tour. Hedwig and her band follow him from stop to stop, playing at much less prestigious venues – usually a knock-off Red Lobster chain.
Hedwig isn’t comfortable in her own skin… and understandably so. She was resistant to her sex change operation, betrayed by every person she loved and feels rightly robbed of a rock star career that should have been hers. Tommy, though the villain, is likewise uneasy – still coming to terms with his sexuality, he feels bad about stealing the music and obviously has deep love for Hedwig, but is willing to trade it for his rock star lifestyle.
Also of note is Hedwig’s current partner Yitzhak. Though born a man, it becomes apparent quickly that he wants to be a woman and – in an inspired bit of casting – is played by a female (Miriam Shor). And damn, it must suck for Yitzhak to be in a relationship with Hedwig, knowing every single day that she’s still in love with someone else and literally stalking him across America.
Mitchell gives an astonishing performance as Hedwig – no two ways about it. It would be so easy to paint Hedwig as a caricature, but Mitchell (who originated the stage role) is always digging… always managing to find the small moments of humanity in even Hedwig’s biggest moments. There isn’t a false note in his performance, which is all the more impressive considering the range the role calls for (and I’m not just talking vocally).
I wish I could say the same for the rest of the cast, but if I’m being blunt, this is Mitchell’s show and everyone else essentially just gets out of his way. Shor, who is the best thing on the long-running series “Younger,” is fine as Yitzhak but doesn’t offer up as much depth as I expected from such a great performer. Pitt is quite good as the young, impressionable youth Hedwig falls in love with, but doesn’t manage to convince you for a single moment that he has the gravitas of a rock star. This despite the fact that he played a rock star very well later in Gus Van Sant’s “Last Days.” Usually dependable character actors like Andrea Martin get lost in Mitchell’s wake. But then again, it’s almost understandable – everyone is bowing down to Hedwig, and rightfully so.
In case you couldn’t tell from the plot summary above, the film is off kilter… but in a great way. It’s difficult to compare it to anything else because there hasn’t really been another movie like it – before or since. And that’s not a bad thing. Like Hedwig herself, this is a singular creation. But its weirdness is one of its strong suits. Mitchell draws us in with the gloss, but his screenplay always keeps its focus where it resonates most – on Hedwig’s journey to self-actualization. It’s a smart script, full of witty dialogue and great zingers, but is also blunt with its emotion in a way that is quite surprising. It wants to be loved as much as we want love in our own lives.
I can’t believe I’ve gotten this far into the article without mentioning the songs, which is a tribute to how wholly excellent most everything in “Hedwig” is. And the songs, co-written by Mitchell and Stephen Trask, are no exception. Probably purposefully, they don’t allow just one specific type of music for the songs, instead going for a pu pu platter when it comes to genre. There are several standouts – my personal favorites are “The Origin of Love,” “Wig in a Box” and “Angry Inch,” but I could have easily listed four or five others in their place. If you’re watching a good musical, you walk out whistling one of the songs. But if you are watching a great musical, you hum several tunes for the next week. This is a great musical.
Years and years ago, when I was just starting college, I was visiting a friend in New York and met his boyfriend for the very first time. That night, there was a blizzard so we all ended up snowed in at my friend’s apartment. My friend said he had just rented this movie called “Shortbus” – also directed by Mitchell – for us to watch, put it on, then promptly fell fast asleep. This left his boyfriend (who, again, I had met one hour before) and I to watch the film, which begins with a man giving himself a blowjob, goes on to show a threesome where all three men sing the National Anthem while holding one another’s penises like microphones, and ends with an orgy. All the sex is real.
It was awkward. Like, way awkward. Probably less because of the film and more because of the fact that I was 19 when I watched it next to a stranger. Regardless, this experience is why I have avoided watching “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” until this Odyssey, and now I’m kicking myself for missing it for all these years. I know that it has a cult following, but even though it had a Broadway revival, I feel like it never hit the big time in the way other cult hits have. And yet, here it remains, waiting to be discovered by those lucky enough to find it.
It’s a delight. It’s beautiful. It’s whole. And, as Hedwig herself comes to realize, that is more than enough.
Cover: A solid, colorful representation of the punk rock nature of the film. I really like it but, I’m not going to lie, I had forgotten what it looked like when I came to this section of the article and needed a refresher. So… that’s never good.
I award it three blonde wigs out of five.
Essay: My favorite essay of the year. Stephanie Zacharek beautifully encapsulates the reasons “Hedwig” is as extraordinary as it is, personalizes it and makes you want to read it again as soon as you finish. It’s taking all my strength not to just copy and paste the first paragraph below in quotes, because it almost left me standing and cheering.
I award it five gummy bears out of five.
Extras: There is a lot here. Obviously Criterion wanted to make this one of their biggest releases of the year, and they achieved it.
- The centerpiece is a fantastic (fantastic!) conversation between all the major cast and crew members about the original Off-Broadway show, the transition to screen and the impact. It’s a must-watch, and one of the best extras Criterion has created in 2019.
- An audio commentary with Mitchell and cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco, which is very fun but covers much of the same territory as the conversation… and I feel like it’s sacrilege to have the songs playing and not be rocking out to them – hard to do with a commentary track.
- Critic David Fricke interviews Trask about the music, and it’s a great showcase for Trask’s vivacious personality. Some very interesting tidbits here about what the individual songs were trying to accomplish.
- An old documentary about the development of “Hedwig” that is mostly repetitive and can be skipped.
- An investigation into the animated centerpiece sequence, which isn’t as interesting as just watching the sequence.
- Deleted scenes that were smartly deleted but interesting to watch.
I award it five ovens out of five.
Up Next: “Europa, Europa”