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.
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