Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. This week: The recent (and very strange) Jeannette: The Childhood Of Joan Of Arc has us tapping our toes to other rock musicals, rock operas, and rock-driven movies.
As a stage musical, Hedwig And The Angry Inch is a loud, punky glam-rock extravaganza. With hard-charging songs and a bold, splashy style, it’s exactly the kind of eye-catching and larger-than-life production that all but guarantees the sweet and melancholy story at its center is forced to share center stage with the over-the-top aesthetic. So when writer-director John Cameron Mitchell turned the musical into a film, he kept all those intense elements, but made the smart move to embrace the intimacy of the medium. His cinematic version of Hedwig gets up close and personal, both visually and narratively, in ways that the stage show is incapable, and it lends the movie a heightened pathos and affinity that showcases the humanist heart at the center of Mitchell’s story.
The narrative unfolds similarly to the live musical version, albeit with some notable changes. Hedwig and her band, The Angry Inch, are desperately trying to support themselves on tour, and the film opens with a rousing performance at a chain seafood restaurant called Bilgewater’s, where a small number of fans are vastly outnumbered by the older folks irritated at the rock band disrupting their meal. Through a series of onstage stories, offstage tour vignettes, and flashbacks, we learn Hedwig is following around the much larger tour of rocker Tommy Gnosis, her former music student she befriended when he was a teenager, only for him to abandon her and steal the songs they wrote together, turning himself into an international star in the process. Hedwig is following his tour around while trying to win a legal battle against him for the musical theft.
But Hedwig’s life story gradually unfolds, and the reality is even more tragic than a simple case of intellectual property theft. Hailing from East Berlin in the time when the wall was still up, we learn that young Hedwig was actually Hansel Schmidt, a “young slip of a girly boy” eager to escape the stifling repression of the Eastern bloc and embrace a Western rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. Falling in love with an American soldier, Hansel learns they could get him out if the two are married as husband and wife—and the process includes a full physical exam. So Hansel undergoes surgery, but it gets botched; without going into detail, let’s just say there’s a reason Hedwig’s band has the name it does.
It gets even sadder from there, but the magic of the film comes from how Mitchell—retaining Stephen Trask’s excellent music and lyrics in his adaptation of his own book—allows the viewer directly into Hedwig’s home and head, so we see not just quiet moments of affection and intimacy between Hedwig and Tommy but also visions that appear to take place entirely in the grief-stricken singer’s head. What was previously an onstage bit of transformation (at the height of the story, Hedwig would transform into Tommy to beg forgiveness) here gets changed into a fantasy that plays out as a wholly internal scene, as Hedwig confronts Tommy (played by Michael Pitt) and gets the cathartic confrontation denied her in real life. It adds newfound weight to the final moments, placing us right in the character’s mind, stripping away any artifice and achieving a level of closeness that makes an already-soaring conclusion take on a more relatable poignancy. Suddenly, the genderqueer rocker is offstage, stripped of both clothing and defenses—it’s not a performance; it’s another life, lived in pain and heartache, but finding grace in acceptance and moving on. That’s worth singing about.
Availability: Hedwig And The Angry Inch is available to stream on Amazon and iTunes. It’s also available for purchase on DVD (but not Blu-ray, for reasons passing understanding), and you may be able to find it at your local video store or library.