“We were the show for people that didn’t like musicals, but then realized that they did,” John Cameron Mitchell said during a reunion roundtable. He and his crew were discussing their film Hedwig and the Angry Inch, adapted from their kickass musical about an equally kickass singer (Mitchell) whose forced sex change is just the starting point on a journey of punk rock and self-discovery. Its music soars, its queerness reigns and its edgy beautiful mess is the kind of sexy salivaic rebel yell you’d do at 2 AM karaoke, directly into your friend’s mouth as they were yelling right back into yours. Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which premiered at Sundance 20 years ago in 2001, was a gateway drug for many that opened doors in a variety of ways—leading to realizations of new sexual facets, nuances of identity or just plain ol’ love of musicals. You didn’t walk away from Hedwig as the same person who came to her.
I, among other things, was one of those musical naysayers mentioned at the beginning. Well, I never explicitly said “Nay” to them, but it was never my scene. I was the punk kid by way of marching band and third-wave ska. If you’re looking for someone to blame, I’ll refer you to my parents, who would walk around the house singing The Dead Milkmen’s “Big Time Operator.” I liked the DIY grit, I liked the ridiculousness and, yes, part of me liked the inherently uncool obscurity. The point is, if you were a pop-punk band with stupidly long song titles, I was (ok, still am) all about it. Otherwise, why would I have named our band Meat Creature and the Techno Fight? Hedwig and the Angry Inch, aside from having a much better band name (referring to the “one-inch mound of flesh, where my penis used to be, where my vagina never was”), was a swirling storm of exciting elements: Anti-fascist messaging, gripping and unpretentious animation from Emily Hubley, typhoons of drag, exciting camerawork, electric performances and earworms that rocked as hard as they lingered. Even as a non-theater kid who didn’t know a showtune from a chiptune, I understood that it was badass.
In fact, in its early days, Rolling Stone’s David Fricke called Hedwig “the first rock musical that really rocks.” And you bet your ass it rocks. From the garish colors and ramshackle, dangerous live energy of “Tear Me Down”’s opening credits to the closing Queen-esque anthem rock of “Midnight Radio,” Hedwig is full of fist-pumpers and head-bangers built to jettison the wig right off your head. They were the immediate musical attraction the film held for me, but it wasn’t long after the credits rolled on my first viewing that I found myself humming the heartbreaking “The Long Grift” and the deprecatingly self-described “big breakout single” ballad “Wicked Little Town” from the film’s donut shop performance. Grabbing me with both hands and yanking me along the transparent trajectory linking glam, emo and musical theater (echoing the impact of rock opera The Black Parade on a certain modern set of listeners), these songs were equally melodramatic and welcoming. They also appealed to the rebellious peacocking instinct frequently observed in rockers, drag and everywhere in between.
Before I realized it, I was consistently moved to tears by “Origin of Love” and belting my favorite, “Wig in a Box.” This was around the same time I was discovering karaoke—a mixture of mask, performance and mutual musical masturbation that goes hand-and-hand with Hedwig. They threw open doors for me, not only to musicals in general but to the camaraderie on offer from the delightful weirdos that hold similar obsessions for Phantom, Les Mis (my partner, for one, who is a far bigger Hedwig-head than I), Wicked, Sondheim—even Rent and Cats. Any reluctance linked to perceptions of coolness went out the window, thrown by community catharsis. It was cool to belt. It was cool to feel out loud. And damn it, it was the kind of healthy acceptance that Hedwig is all about.
While Hedwig wasn’t an earth-shatteringly queer moment for me (though it seems impossible to avoid falling under the spell of Mitchell’s headstrong Hedwig over the course of the film), it was still an awakening to a part of myself I’d suppressed—and done a disservice to the complexity of my identity by doing so. Its potency lies in its ability to catalyze these self-examinations in a vast and diverse audience, with a vast and diverse collection of discoveries existing on the other side. With a decadent thrift shop collage of visual and musical styles—screwing, slicing and snipping like an artistic Swiss Army knife—Hedwig was and is whatever you need it to be.
Rebellious and optimistic in the face of trauma and treachery, Hedwig advocates for self-reflection and reclamation as a powerful form of love. Certainly there is the togetherness and wholeness mentioned in “Origin of Love,” but its mythological basis relies on an understanding of your own place in the story. “This, Eryximachus, is my discourse of love, which, although different from yours, I must beg you to leave unassailed by the shafts of your ridicule…” Thus ends the section of Plato’s Symposium that helped inspire Hedwig, a film that’s own generous and inclusive discourse of love helps make it a truly great rock musical.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch, made by and starring its creators, still feels like a lucky break that most punks never quite get. Or, even worse, that they may only attain after plenty of compromise. But after two decades of the movie airing on the strange corners of TV and being passed around like secret code on video, it still rocks as necessary viewing. Hedwig’s existence as an uncompromised film is a talisman, preserving its power in a forebodingly sharp, swirling crystalline amber—whatever imperfections may have existed in a filmed live performance of the stage show or whatever alterations those staging it in the here and now may impart, Hedwig maintains its permanently malleable, welcoming brand of punk sorcery thanks to this solidified legacy of self-discovery. For years to come, the misfits and the losers will be lifting up their hands to Hedwig.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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