The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Hedwig made me feel ten years younger

with 16 comments

I’ve never fully understood the entertainment value of drag queen shows. I suspect it’s because I’m too open minded. I’m neither tickled, nor provoked by the sight of a man dressed like a woman. If you want to grab my attention and admiration it takes a great deal bit more than that.

Hence I wasn’t sure of how I would receive the film version of the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. From all I could tell the entire movie circled around a (ex) guy wearing a gigantic blond wig, which made Dolly Parton’s hair style seem entirely natural. Not exactly my cup of tea.

But I needn’t have worried. Even as I mentioned that I was about to watch Hedwig and the Angry Inch in recent a blog post, I got some exclaims of enthusiasm in the comment section, and now I understand why.  Hedwig cut her through all my protecting layers right into my heart and entered my top 100 list of movies with a bang.

Not a standard drag queen
As little as Hedwig is an ordinary drag queen (well, strictly speaking she isn’t since she’s transgender, but she certainly looks like one, so I use the term anyway) is this a standard musical movie. It’s not cheesy. It’s not oversimplified. It’s not superficial.

And now I feel a bit helpless as I’m struggling to find the right words. I don’t know how to convey how bouncy it made me, how it teams with energy and creativity, how it is funny and sad and happy and angry at the same time, how it inspires me and challenges me and recharges me.

Would you believe me if I told you I felt ten years younger after watching it?

I guess I should tell you briefly about the story. Born in Eastern Germany, the boy Hansel goes through a (not entirely successful) sex-change operation before marrying a guy, fleeing to the freedom in the west. After being ditched, Hedwig starts a career as a singer, only to see her singing partner take off to make a career of his own, using her songs for his own benefit.

The plot is told mainly through song numbers, which sometimes include animations, with some dialogue and voice over explanations in between, except for the last 25 minutes of the movie, when there’s only music, one song after another (which works better than you would think.)

So what is it about this movie that I love so much?

Firstly I think the music has a lot to do with it. The director and writer John Cameron Mitchell, who also plays the leading role, is about the same age as I am, born in the 60s. And so is Stephen Trask, who has written the songs. You can tell that they’ve been influenced by artists that I love such as David Bowie, and that the punk era didn’t pass them unnoticed.

Sometimes musicals suffer from feeling a little soulless, acceptable for everyone but too anonymous to make any lasting imprint. Like airplane food. But the music of Hedwig has nothing of that. It is powerful, explosive, good enough to stand on its own and I wouldn’t mind putting it in my mp3 player along with artists such as David Bowie, The Who and Pink Floyd. It’s the first time since The Wall that I feel this way about a musical.

Secondly, I absolutely loved the performance by Mitchell. What a talented guy! Not only is he a writer and director; he’s also an excellent and charismatic singer and actor who manages to bring out an energy level which normally is something you only see in live performances.

And finally I loved the underlying message, how the movie challenged and broke every attempt to sort people into boxes, how it refused to recognize the walls we put up between the sexes. What is a woman; what is in the end a man, and do we really need to know or be one or the other? What matters in the end is that we’re all human beings, all searching for our lost, second half.

Extra documentary
With the DVD came an over one hour long documentary about the making of Hedwig. It tells the story about its origins, showing video footage from where it all started, as a live act at a small club. It also contains some great interviews, where I particularly enjoyed the ones with John Cameron Mitchell’s parents. If I ever nurtured any prejudices about retired militaries as being conservative and clueless about homosexuality and transgender issues, they are now gone. Seeing them proudly follow his success at the Sundance festival brought tears to my eyes.

One of the fans appearing in the documentary had watched Hedwig and the Angry Inch 400 times. I don’t think I’ll ever reach that level. But it’s safe to say that I will return to it every once in a while whenever I feel old and gray and un-punkish. I can’t think of a better cure for it than Hedwig.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, US, 2001) My rating: 5/5

Written by Jessica

December 7, 2011 at 1:00 am

16 Responses

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  1. I’m not a fan of musicals but this is my all-time favorite musical. Not because of the story but the energy of the music. Rock operas are a tricky thing to put onto screen but this film definitely gets it right and more. I just love the music in that record. My favorite song is “Wig in a Box”. I just love the sing-a-long element to it and it just kicks fucking ass! I need to get that DVD as the extras you mentioned seemed awesome. Plus, I love the work John Cameron Mitchell has done since this film. He might be a future Auteurs profile.

    Steven Flores

    December 7, 2011 at 1:26 am

    • I only figured out recently that he’d made The Rabbit Hole, which was a fantastic movie as well. I would like to check up his other work as well. I think I’m a fan.


      December 7, 2011 at 8:02 am

  2. This is one of those movies that has sat in my things-to-rent-one-of-these-days pile for a while now. Maybe I should make an effort to watch it this weekend.


    December 7, 2011 at 4:11 am

  3. Such an awesome film. Glad you loved it Jess!

    Rodney Twelftree

    December 7, 2011 at 11:16 am

    • It is! I’m couldn’t find it in my library so I had to buy it to watch it, which I’m glad I did. It’s definitely a movie I’ll watch again.


      December 7, 2011 at 1:33 pm

  4. If we had more people like Mitchell out there creating provocative, meaningful art, we might just achieve civilization sometime soon. Highly recommended. Good review.


    December 8, 2011 at 1:05 am

    • Thank you! And I agree. The world needs more people like him.


      December 8, 2011 at 10:12 am

  5. such a fun, great film. i remember seeing this in theater a couple times the year it came out.


    December 8, 2011 at 2:30 am

    • I wish I’d seen it in a theatre. Tbh I’m not sure it’s even been shown in theatres in Sweden. The DVD copy I got hands on didn’t have any translation.


      December 8, 2011 at 10:15 am

  6. I saw this a while back and remember really really liking it. I will definitely have to give it another watch. I don’t much like musicals, but my favorite musical would have to be DANCER IN THE DARK (Björk has a stunning voice).


    December 8, 2011 at 3:05 am

    • I haven’t seen Dancer in the Dark, but I’d definitely like to. I like musicals coming from where you least expect it. Like the one by Woody Allen a few years ago. I enjoyed that quite a bit.


      December 8, 2011 at 10:18 am

  7. I’m glad that it worked so well for you (as well as many, many others). Unfortunately, I had to stay in the grumpy corner on this one. All right, but definitely not mindblowing.


    December 9, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    • It’s OK to be grumpy at times! I’m postive that I’m grumpy about some of your favorite movies as well. 🙂


      December 9, 2011 at 2:59 pm

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