It feels good to go outside of your comfort zone, so as a straight punk-rocker I thought that it was about time I entered into a world that I’m not especially versed in and, to be honest, don’t always feel comfortable with: Rock Opera. And cause its LGBTQ+ History month, and I’ve been having the name pop up on my radar for as long as I can remember, I thought I’d give the film of the “Off-Broadway*” classic, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a try. Written, directed, and starring the co-writer and star of the theatrical version – John Cameron Mitchell – it was a box office bomb. This was almost certainly because it was released in 2001 and is about an East German “girly boy” who’s rocking their way through late 80s and early 90s America, to stalk their now-famous ex-boyfriend. Still, if it was a big success I wouldn’t get to enthuse about it here.
The story starts with Hedwig Robinson, né Hansel Schmidt, and her band The Angry Inch (composed of Eastern Europeans and including her husband, Yitzhak, played by Miriam Shor) gigging at a series of Bilgewater’s seafood restaurants. They play a kind of loud and brash 80s blues-rock, mixing it up with 70s punk theatrics, and through their songs, we get shown the origins of Hedwig as a kid in 60sish-maybe-historical-accuracy-isn’t-important-here East Berlin.
Hansel liked rock music, cartoons, and, eventually, boys. The boy in question is an American GI who seduces Hansel, and then convinces him to get sex reassignment surgery so they can get married on Hansel’s mother’s passport. That goes wrong, leaving Hedwig with the titular “Angry Inch” of flesh in her groin. She moves to America with the GI, he dumps her because he’s an abusive twat, and then she goes back to being a rocker because that’s just what you do when you have to rock. Then she meets Tommy Gnosis, they fall in love, then he abandons her (whilst pinching her music) because he’s an emotionally immature abusive twat.
Most of the plot revolves around Hedwig trying to come to terms with all of this, whilst trying not to become an abusive twat themselves, and rocking as hard as possible. The two main lines (how she got to the break up with Tommy and her efforts to reclaim her music) run in relative parallel. The basics are presented upfront, with details getting filled in as we go along. Nothing is especially complex on that level, but it’s an interesting way to go through things and the lack of linearity helps add to the generally surreal nature of the piece. A lot of it is small touches, like the band rocking their arse off for the handful of adoring fans at each show, contrasted by other people just quietly eating their dinner. There is also a scene with the band playing to one fan in a field, which I read as partly showing how it can feel like a rock star is talking to you personally.
The heavy work is done by the themes running through the story. It’s about self-acceptance, finding love by loving yourself, and the wish of the performer to be recognised and appreciated for their art. It’s also about being gay and being transgender, but that’s handled as more of a “fact of life” element than a key plot issue. There are two moments where people have a problem with Hedwig’s nature, the rest of the time everyone just reacts to her as a person. Unrealistic or idealistic, you decide. It doesn’t hide its sexual politics, rather it makes them a part of a story about something more abstract.
However, all of this is mere dressing for the single most important fact: Hedwig and the Angry Inch rocks. From the opening “Tear Me Down” to the closing “Midnight Radio”, it kicks arse in a variety of manners. To use a cliché, it’s a rock opera that rocks. Sitting somewhere between The Tubes, Wayne County, and The Toilet Boys, the songs have a good beat, a decent pace, and a variety of sing-along moments. They have a job to do as exposition for the story, but they manage to also sound like something you could hear at a rock concert. A couple would also probably work in a club, and I have a feeling I’m going to be hunting for a usable version of “Angry Inch” as it sounds like it was found in the backroom of CBGB’s in 1978. The only negative thing to say in this area is that a lot of styles are covered, so whilst the songs show off the producers’ range, they don’t sound like a single body of work from one artist. Such are the demands of musicals. Then again, it means the soundtrack can riff off David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and The Dead Boys, which is good fun.
By putting itself in a stylised “not-quite-sure-when” period, and having few bits of the world shown outside of Hedwig’s own performance-focused existence, it has managed to age very gracefully for an almost 20-year-old film. Yeah, the fall of the Berlin War isn’t as big news as it once was but it manages to do its tasks as a metaphor and plot point. The only bit that hasn’t aged too well is Hedwig starting a sexual relationship with a teenage Tommy whilst being the babysitter, but it’s unclear quite how old he is and it’s not like inappropriate age differences have put the brakes on any real-world rockumentaries.
Mostly, it’s just a fun and moving rock-and-roll fairy tale. John Cameron Mitchell is the center of attention, but the whole cast puts in great work throughout and the band is just marvels of background storytelling. Whilst a shining example of the unapologetic queercore movement, this cis-het found it most welcoming and it’s got a story with something for everyone. The film, and the music, are flamboyantly glam rock, with enough 90s sensibility to avoid the 70s aggressive camp, and both carry a lot of universal messages (especially “don’t be an abusive twat!”) so left me with a warm feeling at the end. It also had enough visually interesting moments and bits of playful ambiguity to make me enjoy it the second time I watched it. I’ve no clue how it stacks up against the theatrical version, but I’d happily watch it after seeing the film and I’m getting the soundtrack.