Viking Night: Hedwig and the Angry Inch
By Bruce Hall
December 18, 2012
It’s not easy being a musician. One thing people never consider is that getting a band together isn’t the hard part, keeping one together is. Temperamental artists, when sufficiently driven, are good at turning tension into music. But some people are driven to be creative by something much deeper than creativity. Sometimes it's pain and sometimes it's not but whatever it is, an artist often becomes defined by it. And when your experience is largely defined by a trip across the Iron Curtain into sexual uncertainty, mutilation, betrayal and spandex, it also makes for a hell of a story.
Or movie, to be precise.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the story of Hansel Schmidt (John Cameron Mitchell), a German boy who grew up on the wrong side of Khrushchev's wall, but managed to escape. He develops an early fondness for flamboyant music and gummy bears before finally finding love in the arms of an eccentric American GI (Maurice Dean Wint). Blinded by love, Hansel consents to a cut-rate sex change operation, which leaves him disfigured in a particularly titular way. Abandoned by his lover, she changes her name to Hedwig, puts together a band and adopts the persona of its gender bending, storytelling lead singer.
Hedwig and her band travel the free world, scraping by on what they can earn playing in truck stops and laundromats. It's a tough gig, but Hedwig remains philosophically detached about sleeping somewhere new every night eating only four times a week. She believes in the concept of the soul mate, and in the transformative nature of suffering set to music. She finds a kindred spirit in Tommy Speck (Michael Pitt), a disaffected teenager guided by a childish mixture of nihilism and subservience. They form their own act, write a few songs, and then split up. The artist now known as Tommy Gnosis later becomes a millionaire passing those songs off as his own.
A bitter Hedwig forms her own band, called Hedwig and the Angry Inch - a reference to her botched surgery. The band follows Gnosis around on his tour, belting out polished glam rock numbers while Hedwig showers the audience with personal anecdotes and bitter recriminations against her former lover. Their act plays a bit like Charlie Sheen's Torpedo of Truth crossed with a David Bowie show, produced by Meat Loaf on a $500 budget. This doesn’t reflect very well on Hedwig, whole doleful preoccupation begins to alienate her band. It’s pretty obvious by the middle of the film that the struggle she faces isn’t with her Muse, with Tommy Gnosis, or even with her torn anatomy.
Duh - it’s with herself.
Okay, that’s great. But how does it play out on screen, you ask? Well, it’s no secret that this movie was a labor of love for Mitchell, and it shows in his performance. Hedwig is an enigma of innocence, anger, compassion -vaguely discomforting and luridly seductive all at once. It really is an inspired performance, although that’s a pro and a con. Every inch (har har) of film belongs to him, and the supporting cast - even Gnosis - are as much accessories as Hedwig’s outrageous eyelashes and glittery makeup. The story is a surreal self biography of a very powerful personality, so everything else tends to be drowned out by the central character. It doesn’t make the movie bad, but since Mitchell’s directing skills aren’t as polished as his dialogue, the story already feels choppy and disjunctive. Having such a strong lead surrounded by such a poorly developed cast makes them seem like confetti - pretty, but distracting.
Still, the prime movers in Hedwig’s life are represented, brief and sharp though it may be. Hedwig’s hunky GI, Gnosis and one other character are defined largely by one or two interactions, and I find the individual performances to be less important than the artful way in which the scenes are shot or written. Hedwig is an amateurish film but there are moments, even entire scenes, that are breathtaking in their honesty and simplicity. There are shots - lingering close ups, creative uses of light and some remarkably seductive camera work - that help maintain your interest every bit as much as Hedwig’s charisma.
Despite some fits and starts, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a compelling work of art that’s hard to look away from - even when you feel like you should. It’s about an artist, a man and a woman who are all the same person, who are all looking for love, acceptance, redemption, and the mythical Better Half. One of the film’s central themes is Hedwig’s obsession with this, and it makes a peculiar emotional connection with its audience by at times setting the story to music, and at others letting the music tell the story. Most of the songs are quite good and the performances feel genuine. There’s strength to be gained from sadness, if you can find it, Hedwig seems to want us to know.
If only she could follow her own advice. Her experiences are hurtling her toward something inevitable, and her stubborn insistence on looking for it in the company of another person are what give the film both pathos AND excitement. As hard as it is to keep a band together, it’s often harder to keep yourself in one piece. There’s something to be said for the idea that until you get yourself right inside, you’ll never be any good to anyone else. And there’s something to be said for a movie that dares address this by hiding something romantic inside something so potentially appalling.
You might end up loving Hedwig, and you might end up hating it. Either way, you’ll probably still enjoy it. If that doesn’t make sense, don’t worry. You’ll just have to see it to understand.