Tasha: Hedwig And The Angry Inch is mighty damned efficient: Broadway musicals routinely stretch past three hours with intermission, but Hedwig manages, in a lean 95 minutes, to convey a complicated personal past, a distressing present, and a promising future, largely by eliding a lot of incident and relying on emotion to carry the story. So many key events get skipped: most of Hedwig’s relationship with Sgt. Luther between the first liaison and the divorce; virtually all of Hedwig’s relationship with Yitzhak; even that key reconciliation with Tommy Gnosis in the car. So much is implied, rather than said, just by the tone of the song backing a given time period. And even the first-person voiceover explaining Hedwig’s history is more arch and artful than literal—talking about the panting gummy bears steaming up the inside of their bag, for instance, rather than the details of Hedwig’s response to Luther, which are left purposefully vague as to whether it’s a gay sexual awakening, or just a needy response to being wanted and put in a position of control. That leaves the facts of the narrative fairly fuzzy at times, especially toward the end, but the facts aren’t the point in a story driven so completely by its protagonist’s emotional state. Which is the kind of story a musical is perfect at conveying: We don’t really need to know exactly how Luther’s relationship with Hedwig decayed, we just need to see the emotional revival that followed, and how it forged a new identity that makes the name Head-Wig literal.
In that respect, Hedwig strongly reminds me of another famous rock opera, Pink Floyd: The Wall, which does a similarly brief sketch of its protagonist’s history with shocking images over a couple of brief songs, and has a similar tendency to let one era melt into the next just by taking up a new tune. It also goes in a similarly emotional rather than literal direction at the end. Hedwig is glam instead of surrealist, but it has a similar combination of melancholy and fury, with a character vacillating between loneliness and rage over all the betrayal that’s scarred him and made him who he is. And both films take a similar approach to jumping between emotional moments and widely separated events. Are there points in the story you guys wish writer-director John Cameron Mitchell had filled in further? What’s your response to the emotion-driven storytelling here?
Nathan: Lately I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about music’s ability to touch us in a place beyond logic, to tap into some primal, subconscious place of raw emotion. Magnolia and True Stories both had that quality, and Hedwig And The Angry Inch has it too. From an emotional standpoint, it owes more to rock operas like Tommy than conventional movies, though I would suggest it has much in common with Velvet Goldmine, which similarly eschewed straightforward, linear storytelling in favor of a free-associative abstraction that falls halfway between a song and a dream. It’s worth noting that Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), Hedwig’s second most important character, doesn’t appear properly until the film is nearly half over, though his presence is so strong throughout the film’s first half that it feels like he’s part of the narrative before he’s properly introduced.
Noel: I’m with you, Tasha: I like the elision, except in the final sequence, where it ranges too far into abstraction/symbolism. It’s not just the pertinent facts of Hedwig’s story that get suggested rather than spelled out. Even a detail as small as the Korean military wives Hedwig drafts to be her band—there’s a whole series of missing steps leading up to that point, though they’re fun to imagine. (How did she make friends with these ladies? What were the first band practices like?) But these little bits of backstory aren’t essential, so Mitchell and Hedwig co-creator/songwriter Stephen Trask don’t bother to pad them out. The movie is as lean as a rock song: some evocative scene-setting, some gut-spilling, and some repetition of the main theme, all delivered curtly and catchily.
Scott: I appreciate the brevity, too, which figures into both the musical’s punk aesthetic and its across-the-board off-Broadway aesthetic. To make an analogy: Rent is Tommy Gnosis filling up stadiums and arenas, Hedwig is rocking out at a Bilgewater’s near you. To answer Tasha’s question, I would say that I didn’t feel like anything was missing from Hedwig’s story, despite the abridgments. Trask and Mitchell keep the focus on Hedwig’s trials and transformation—her being made whole after traumas, heartbreaks, and setbacks—and there’s a continuity to that journey that doesn’t have to be supported by fully explicating her relationship with Luther, for example. In the end, too, the storytelling gets radical and abstract, and goes still deeper into Hedwig’s mind and perspective.
Genevieve: I talked about this in yesterday’s Keynote, but so much of the film’s style is an extension of its theatrical manifestation. The entire original off-Broadway production is told in the context of a performance, as an extended monologue from Hedwig, and Mitchell carries that through to the film as well. There is no omnipotence here, just Hedwig’s version of events, told via performances that are concerned as much with entertaining an audience as telling the whole, unabridged truth of what happened.
What the film is able to do that the original stage production couldn’t (or at least didn’t), is jump around in time, sometimes placing Hedwig within her own flashbacks, sometimes letting her narrate from the present, and sometimes doing both within a single sequence. And the “Wig In A Box” sequence, which is the only song not presented as a performance for an audience, lets Hedwig step into her own memories and relive them through the context of the person she’s become. As evidenced in the early “Origin Of Love” animated sequence, Hedwig is preoccupied with myth and storytelling, and one of its greatest virtues as a film is that it explores many different avenues into Hedwig’s story, trusting in the music to stitch it all together into something that makes emotional sense, if not entirely narrative sense.
Tasha: Can we just take a moment to call out that “Origin Of Love” sequence? In many ways, it doesn’t fit in with the film around it: It’s melancholy rather than defiant or exultant. It’s a ballad instead of rock or glam or punk. It’s animated rather than live-action. It’s a broad beginning-of-the-world fable, amid autobiographical songs specifically recounting one person’s personal, modern-day history. And yet there’s never any question of how it fits into the movie, or into Hedwig’s story. It’s such a poignant sequence, and it gives Hedwig so much more dimension, exposing her vulnerability and her unrelenting need for her lost love, after an opening that’s all about denying any vulnerability at all. It gives the film a mythic quality—and at the same, mythologizes Hedwig’s relationship with Tommy, making it something big, cosmic, and inevitable that goes back to the beginning of the human race. I’m sure we’ve all had relationships that on some level we’d like to glamorize to this level: It isn’t Tommy’s squeamishness, shallowness, and selfish theft of Hedwig’s songs standing in the way here, it’s the gods themselves.
Noel: One of the hardest things for any movie about musicians to get right is the actual music, but Stephen Trask’s songs for Hedwig And The Angry Inch are phenomenal. They’re catchy, hard-rocking, and sentimental when they need to be, and they bend genres so well that they’re not really derivative of any one artist. It’s my understanding that in the nascent form of the Hedwig stage show, Trask and Mitchell had Hedwig singing re-written versions of some of their favorite punk and proto-punk songs, so they already knew what vibe they were going for during each musical beat of the finished play. But I wouldn’t say that the songs here sound much like Television, or The Velvet Underground. They’re just as informed by 1970s Top 40, and the drag tradition of simultaneously spoofing and sincerely paying homage to mainstream pop.
Mostly, Hedwig And The Angry Inch reclaims punk’s roots in the gay community. British punk circa 1976-77 (and the Los Angeles hardcore wave that followed closely in the late 1970s and early 1980s) changed punk into something more macho, aggressive, and political, but in the early 1970s, the parallel streams of glam-rock and the early New York punk scene found different uses for musical primitivism, subverting conventional notions of gender and turning rock ’n’ roll into performance art. Hedwig claims kinship with David Bowie and Lou Reed, musicians who in the early 1970s forced the at-times-obnoxiously-hetero rock-critic establishment to deal with their fluid definitions of sexuality. What Hedwig has most in common with her influences is that when the riff and the beat are strong, the audience is too transported to ask questions about whom the people on stage are having sex with.
Genevieve: While the idea and visual of Hedwig stems from Mitchell, the sound of Hedwig is all Trask, so it’s important to note that he came from a rock ’n’ roll background, not a theatrical one like Mitchell. (In the making-of doc on the Hedwig DVD, which is almost as entertaining as the film itself, Mitchell reminisces about having to be told to back away from his musical-theater-trained vibrato and sing the songs as rock songs, not showtunes.) When the two started working on the bones of what would become Hedwig in the early 1990s, Trask was fronting a sort of proto-queer-punk band called Cheater (which performed as The Angry Inch in the off-Broadway run) and serving as the music director at the New York drag club Squeezebox; it seems safe to assume that many, if not all, of Hedwig’s musical influences are Trask’s as well.
An interesting detail about those songs: Many of them are based on chords that are missing the third degree of the scale, which is what usually defines a chord as a “happy” major chord or a “sad” minor chord. It’s easy—maybe too easy—to extend that emotional ambiguity to Hedwig’s gender ambiguity, but it does speak to the thought put into the songwriting here, which is sturdy enough to support Hedwig’s grab-bag approach to musical genre.
Nathan: One of the ways the film gets glam right is in its keen understanding of the genre’s underlying theatricality. Hedwig isn’t just a singer, she’s an entertainer, and her one-liners capture the theatricality of a genre that never made much effort to hide its roots in the dance hall and musical theater. Glam and punk are all about casting off the shackles of tedious conformity to reimagine yourself in the image of your fantasies and dreams. My favorite song from the film might just be “Wig In A Box” because it so perfectly captures the transcendence that comes with leaving the everyday behind and becoming who you’ve always wanted to be, if only for a little while, and if only in a fantasy realm.
Scott: When we talk about Hedwig getting glam and punk right, we should acknowledge that those two things aren’t the same, and are as seemingly unreconcilable as Hedwig herself. Glam is about excess and theatricality, punk about bare-bones minimalism, so it’s the musical’s triumph that it finds the things they do have in common—outsidership, rebellion, stagecraft—and make something coherent out of it. I actually don’t see specific artists that Trask is evoking in the songs, which probably speaks to my limited music knowledge as much as anything, but it’s no easy feat to make catchy songs in a non-traditional musical style while getting across a lot of information and emotion.
Nathan: Scott, you’re right about punk and glam being different genres, but it’s worth noting that they have common roots in seminal artists like The Velvet Underground (and particularly Lou Reed), MC5, The New York Dolls, The Stooges, and that great god of glam David Bowie, who made a special point of mentoring and also co-opting the American artists most likely to pose a threat to him, creatively and culturally: Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, both of whom he produced during their 1970s heyday. In that respect, Bowie was a lot like Hedwig, re-creating beautiful, charismatic boys in his own magnetically androgynous image, then watching his protégés bloom in ways that exceed his grasp and control.
Nathan: One of the fascinating storytelling quirks of Hedwig And The Angry Inch is that it begins deep into the story, with Hedwig reduced to playing an endless series of nightmare gigs in grotesque, purposefully non-musical dives that embody the very worst of American culture, while Tommy Gnosis is a massive superstar playing giant stadiums. From the beginning, an aura of hopelessness hangs over Hedwig’s attempts to make it in the music business. There’s a sense of melancholy resignation as she plies her trade; she’s cynical and world-weary enough to know that her background and her unique physicality all but doom her to the sidelines of pop culture, while Gnosis’ all-American good looks and less trickily androgynous aesthetic prime him for the big time. Hedwig is deeply cynical about show-business despite the ripe romanticism and beauty at its core, and the one part of the film that has aged terribly, for me at least, is the part involving Rent, which, as Scott has noted, registers as the clean-cut, mainstream-friendly Tommy Gnosis to Hedwig’s wild and uncommercial Hedwig. Rent embodies, and continues to embody, a cleaning-up and commercialization of a grungy underground queer scene, but the jabs the film takes at Rent can’t help but feel a little petty, glib, and dated, especially now that Hedwig the movie is a beloved cult favorite while Rent the movie was a famous flop. Did the Rent stuff bother of any of you?
Noel: It bothered me inasmuch as it’s one of the only parts of the movie that’s dated. (Another: The Lilith-like “Menses Fair,” where The Angry Inch plays the ninth stage.) The glam and punk references really don’t date Hedwig, because even in 2014, a lot of kids still go through a Lou Reed phase. But the Rent jokes are making a point that’s getting more lost every year.
I will say this, though, about Hedwig’s commentary on fame: While The Angry Inch does become way more popular after the tabloids get hold of Hedwig’s relationship with Tommy, one of my favorite unremarked-upon bits of the Hedwig story is that even before then she does start to build a following, just by touring from Bilgewater’s to Bilgewater’s. She might never have become a big star, but Hedwig was already a cult star in the making.
Genevieve: That’s true, Noel, but it’s worth noting that the sliver of fame—or infamy—Hedwig does have at this point is still carved from the skyrocketing career of Tommy Gnosis, which is both ironic and heartbreaking, especially once we learn the details of their love story. I love the short scene of Hedwig holding court in a tire yard, drunkenly presiding over a small, ragtag group of followers (while wearing one of the foam Hedwig wigs that fans of the show—or “Hed-heads”— wear to show their allegiance). Those followers are there to see her, yes, but they’re also there to hear about her relationship with Tommy specifically, a story she offers begrudgingly, and with no small amount of bitterness. And Hedwig’s insistence on following Tommy’s tour across the country is equal parts savvy and belligerent, toeing the line between stalking—which the Angry Inch’s manager, Phyllis, frets about—and maintaining her tenuous hold on the share of Tommy’s legacy she feels she’s owed. A lawsuit is alluded to, and when Hedwig and Tommy are arrested following a drunken car-wreck, their respective expressions in their mugshots speak volumes about the nature of their relationship: One can only attain fame at the expense of the other’s reputation. It’s just like Hedwig’s mom told him: Power corrupts.
Tasha: The Rent reference doesn’t bother me. If anything, it plays better for me now than it did then; when the film came out, the Rent business may have played more like, “I’m going to leave this sad go-nowhere outfit and make it on Broadway,” like a run-away-and-join-the-circus fantasy. These days, it plays as, “I’m going to give up on whatever uniqueness, whatever cult audience, whatever family we’ve built here, and go pump out the same generic performance of a long-running, dated show night after night.” The idea of selling out by buying into a big show that commodifies the kind of social marginality and artistic independence Hedwig actually has seems even more poignant to me.
Similarly, Lilith Fair’s heyday is gone, but that just makes the gag of Hedwig playing the barely-in-the-park ninth stage of a women’s music festival, to a single curious fan, seem even more isolating and funny to me. In both cases, it isn’t just that Hedwig isn’t famous, it’s that she’s hovering just barely on the periphery of anything recognizable as fame. She can hear Tommy every time someone opens the door at Bilgewater’s; she can hear whoever’s stepped into Sarah McLachlan or Ani DiFranco’s shoes off at the mainstage at the Menses Fair. The famous people aren’t in another world entirely—they’re right around the corner, selling neat little packages of queerness or femininity—or in Tommy’s case, cleaned-up, repackaged Hedwig. They’ve just found ways to polish those things in ways Hedwig hasn’t, to make them palatable to the masses.
Scott: I like the Rent references, and I think there’s something cheering and apt about Hedwig the movie ultimately finding an appreciation while its Broadway counterpart was left badly exposed on the screen. The cream rises to the top. Another important point, too, is that Yitzhak leaves the band not for Broadway, but for a production of Rent in the south Pacific—selling out for cheap. But with regard to fame, Hedwig ultimately strikes me as optimistic about the possibility of art making a meaningful connection with people and leading to a kind of notoriety that’s sustaining and true. The reference to Rent isn’t dated like Lilith Fair, but Rent itself is dated, a pop-culture moment whose time has passed. Hedwig, the play and the movie, still stands as a meaningful contrast.
America/The American Dream
Scott: Hedwig And The Angry Inch is to some degree an immigrant story, following a character who was born east of the Berlin Wall and made her way west before it was torn down. The divide between East and West is manifested on her body, and her journey is about the metaphorical struggle to make herself feel whole again. Being in America makes her transformation possible, but the film is more than a few stops short of patriotic. Her arrival to these shores comes courtesy of Luther, an American soldier who marries her and takes her to a trailer park in Junction City, Kansas, where he eventually abandons her for a man. Stranded in the Heartland, she makes her way as an outsider, shocking the pallid diners at half-empty Bilgewater’s while Tommy Gnosis, an American whose less confrontational alt-nation image she created from scratch, plays her songs to stadiums and arenas. It’s unjust, reflective of a country that’s slow to embrace Hedwig’s strain of “different.” But there’s something cheering, too, in the devoted following she does achieve, and the potential for transformation, redemption, and peace. How do you all see Hedwig as an American story?
Noel: Well, any movie that opens with a version of “America The Beautiful” is unmistakably a movie about America to some degree. I think Hedwig has a conflicted take on this country. The young Hedwig pines for the West, inspired by “American masters” Debby Boone, Toni Tenille, and Anne Murray. But when she gets to the States, she isn’t in the New York of Lou Reed’s queer-friendly “Walk On The Wild Side,” she’s in a place where everyone wants to know if she’s accepted Jesus into her life. (“No, but I love his work,” Hedwig replies.) The important thing about America that I think gets lost in the “red state/blue state” debates, though, is that there are Hedwigs in Junction City, Kansas. When 60 percent of the populace votes for the anti-gay candidate, that means 40 percent went the other way—and that’s rather a lot. What I find thrilling about Hedwig And The Angry Inch is that it shows an outsider fighting for her place as an American, and finding enough like-minded people to build a little community for herself.
Genevieve: Hedwig’s apparent ambivalence toward her adopted country is understandable, considering the circumstances that got her there. Hedwig/Hansel wasn’t pining for America so much as she was longing for an escape from East Berlin. That longing is manifested in the all-American figure of Luther, who plies young Hansel with a bag of gummy bears, familiar yet unlike the apparently colorless, bland Communist gummy bears he’s used to. “I feel so optimistic,” Hansel says, as present-day Hedwig reminisces, “I suddenly recognized the flavor in my mouth. It’s the taste of power.” Those gummy bears are the temptation of the American Dream condensed into sweet little blobs of sugar and gelatin, a promise of freedom, power, and consumerism in a sweaty plastic bag. The song that follows that sequence, “Sugar Daddy,” extends that temptation further, with Hedwig singing about wanting “Whiskey and French cigarettes, a motorbike and high-speed jets, a Waterpik, a Cuisinart, and a hypoallergenic dog.” The exotic thrill of conspicuous consumerism combined with the music of the “American masters” is more than enough temptation and motivation for a little boy who grew up playing in an oven. But when he gets to America, the situation he winds up in—alone and powerless, in a trailer not unlike the tiny East Berlin apartment he grew up in—is distressingly familiar.
Tasha: And it’s particularly worth noting that Hedwig never claims to want a sex change, or identify as transgender. She lets Luther talk her into the operation because, as he says, America won’t admit her as his wife otherwise. So there’s a feeling here that the American dream is all about compromise, about giving up something vital and personal in exchange for assimilation—and then never really being able to entirely assimilate. “To be free, one must give up a little part of oneself,” Hedwig’s mother says. But “free” in this case means getting abandoned by a lover (who hypocritically is off chasing wang), losing a home and family, and losing a sense of self, all without gaining much in return. It’s a pretty brutal, cynical take on the immigrant experience, especially once Hedwig is dumped amid the endless tacky bric-a-brac of an endless series of Bilgewater’s.
Nathan: It’s also worth noting that Luther is another atypical outsider who straddles worlds: a black, gay or bisexual American serviceman in Europe whose sexual orientation is grounds for him to be kicked out of the military. There’s very little straight or straightforward about Hedwig And The Angry Inch; even the man Hansel uses to get out of his godforsaken homeland (and who in turn uses Hansel for his own purposes) is an outsider in many ways. Identity and sexuality are fluid in Hedwig, but also filled with pain and confusion.
Genevieve: We’ve talked a little about Hedwig’s relationship with Tommy Gnosis, which is the primary relationship driving the story, but there’s another important relationship in Hedwig that gets short shrift in the film adaptation, that of Hedwig and Yitzhak (played, as he was in the off-Broadway production, by Miriam Shor), which mirrors the dysfunctional relationship between Hedwig and Tommy. It’s in Hedwig’s relationship with Yitzhak that the story’s theme of power corrupting gets played out most explicitly: Hedwig is essentially holding Yitzhak and the rest of the band hostage and refusing him the slice of the spotlight he craves. The moment during the “Wicked Little Town” reprise at the end of the film, when Hedwig bestows her wig to an unbelieving Yitzhak, is meant to be both cathartic and redemptive, but it always comes off a little flat to me, because Hedwig and Yitzhak’s relationship seems secondary—tertiary, really—to her relationships with Tommy and Luther. It’s one of those aspects of the story you sort of have to take on faith, but of all those aspects, this is the one I would have loved to see filled out further in the film.
Do you guys have any such lingering questions or reservations about this adaptation? Or perhaps we should just use this space to quote our favorite Hedwig one-liners. Here, I’ll start, with Hedwig’s response to Tommy singing her songs by his favorite bands, Boston, Kansas, America, Europe, and Asia: “Travel exhausts me.”
Tasha: There’s a lot of sass and flash and dry humor in the film, but the line that always gets me is where Hedwig finally gets Tommy’s hand on her crotch, and he recoils, asking “What is that?” And she says, “It’s what I have to work with.” It’s the perfect rejoinder to a horrible question—not entirely accusing or aggressive, acknowledging both the barriers between them and Hedwig’s sense of her own limitations, but not entirely letting Tommy off the hook for his impolitic revulsion, either. It’s weary and accepting and entirely frank. Hedwig’s whole life is about working with what she has, whatever that may be, and once in a while, she’d maybe like just a little sympathy about that.
Plot-wise, Genevieve, I’m with you on primarily wanting to know more about Yitzhak, who seems like such an anomaly in this story. So much about their relationship is frustratingly unclear, and while I said earlier that the tone of the individual songs in individual scenes fills a lot of gaps, this is one gap that still throws the movie off-balance, because it’s so unclear what a win for the two of them would be, and whether they get there. For that matter, I’d really like to understand the end of the film better. It seems like by stripping down, removing the drag (and the tomato falsies, which finally made it clear to me how much tomatoes are a motif in the film) and going forth into the world naked, Hedwig is reclaiming a male identity, and owning his body again. It’s a birth image, or a rebirth. But again, is that a win? And if that isn’t what’s going on, what is? It feels a bit like the end of The Prisoner, with the protagonist emerging from captivity—but in a way that’s so surreal, it’s hard to interpret. What’s literal and what’s figurative in that ending? And how are we supposed to take it?
Nathan: I love that line too, Genevieve, I think because it is so damn campy. There’s an intense self-awareness to Hedwig that never grows grating; Hedwig’s one-liners are almost invariably accompanied by a rimshot, as if she’s a vaudevillian tummler rather than a drag star. Then again, Hedwig is savvy enough to know that these are two stops on a great pop-culture continuum. And I share your mild frustration that we don’t get to know more about Yitzhak, though I suppose that is the price we pay for brevity and punch.
Tasha, I like the ending, I think in part because it is so cryptic, but also because it represents the ultimate coming together of worlds; two figures who have been trying on different identities throughout the film strip down and come to realize how alike they truly are. Rewatching Hedwig And The Angry Inch also really made me want to revisit Velvet Goldmine, which covers similar subject matter in a similarly magnetic, captivating, gender-bending fashion.
Noel: Nathan, Hedwig’s one-liners are like what you’d hear at a drag show. To me, the cutting, deadpan jokes are very much part of that tradition. But I do agree that the movie has some commonalities with Velvet Goldmine, in that both movies are about how people use the identity-building possibilities of rock stardom to create a category for themselves that lets them experiment with their sexuality within a context that has at least some public approval. That’s also what so moving to me about that “It’s what I have to work with” line, Tasha. (And the follow-up: “Love the front of me.”) It’s an assertion that even if “Hedwig” is a creation, she won’t be objectified—at least not in pieces. Anyone can put on a fake Hedwig wig, but there’s more to her than that.
Our discussion of Hedwig And The Angry Inch began yesterday with Genevieve Koski’s Keynote on how the movie stays true to its original theatrical form while exploring the possibilities offered by film, and continues tomorrow with Matthew Dessem’s exploration of the animation dynasty that helped birth the film’s “Origin Of Love” sequence.