Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Hedwig and the Angry Inch ★★★★

On April 15th 1994, joint drag-punk club SqueezeBox! opened its doors in New York City, offering gay revelers and curious straights a way to satiate the edge brought upon by a post-AIDS existence that Brooklyn techno and Manhattan electroclash failed to properly extinguish in the minds of some, letting a truly queer crowd of women, gays guys, drag queens, and trans lives mosh out to hardcore rock and roll and gritty, truly underground punk rock that allowed people to slam-dance with a like-minded accepting attitude that saw fun and aggression join hand-in-hand. What separated SqueezeBox! from its drag-show contemporaries, besides the rougher sound, was that all the performing drag queens could not lip-synch to the classic cuts of disco and soul, they had to spill their souls and belt out melodies with an actual live band performing behind them, even if the queens wasn't stellar at singing because, well, punk rock's qualifications of vocalizing often boils down to simply if a tune can be carried, but suffice to say every Friday a star could have genuinely been born then and there and it made the wild pansexual parties underneath a New York slowly metamorphosing into unrecognizable territory all the more compelling. Enter Hedwig, the drag alter-ego of well-off stage actor John Cameron Mitchell, who became a sensation in this fully queer rock and roll environment and was a way to hone Mitchell's own personal plunge into gender, love, and autobiographical temporary residence in a Wall-era Berlin, squeezing out of its simple roots as performance art into, with the help of house band musician Stephen Trask, a cohesive story and arc for Hedwig to traverse. From offstage band gigs to help preserve that spontaneous punk energy to an Off-Broadway show that received rave reviews, Hedwig and the Angry Inch was destined to be a film for a generation of glitter-decorated queers and punk-soaked pretty boys, which didn't quite happen on account of the movie being released to theaters on September 12th, 2001 (yeah that's pretty unfortunate timing there), but nowadays, when Pride Month and Wrath Month are starting to overlap with one another, this dreamy odyssey of sex, gender, and rock & roll knows how to dish its surface-level cards right and deliver underneath its tattered shirt a heartfelt, passionate drama of immortal love and vengeance.

Hedwig, international nobody whose touring schedule mostly lands her band within grubby diners of confused patrons and small crowds of enthralled youth, finds herself torn between man and woman after a botched sex operation, spiritually torn and finding glam androgyny a suitable replacement. Transformer-era Lou Reed and Ziggy Stardust become better gods for Hedwig, going beyond gendered binaries by slowly giving up on binaries altogether via its inherent existentialism of how societal construction and ascribed perception can be challenged through observation of the Greeks' origin of mankind via joined-to-the-hip male/males, female/females, and male/females, and learns to accept the complexities and sadness that marks sexual and identity frustration through the very thing successfully weaponized by nearly all drag queens: sharp quips and self-deprecating queer humor. Hedwig endears as her philosophical and pop-culture obsessions allow her to be catty regarding the superstar that stole her music, her rough musical beginnings with a band made up of Korean army wives, and multiple monologues that allow her life story to seamlessly shift from soul-sifting transitional periods to stand-up routines (reinforced, at one point, with rimshots accompanying rapid-fire quips). The self-conscious campiness that informs much of the film's half-comedic tone forms the backbone of the drag archetype, bitchy but not too snide, able to laugh in the wake of disaster. Hedwig's stories of continued disillusionment are drolled with an optimistic beat and this withering grandeur is what allows one to easily accept and want to side with this collapsing mythology Hedwig continuously builds as she starts to find a path to inner peace and oneness.

Much like the genderqueer identity Hedwig, and those in a similar path of non-binary exploration, wrestles in embracing, Hedwig's personality is one of complexity, a bitter soul damaged with the strains of parental neglect and abuse, hopeless romantic flings, and the common struggles all rock bands at the bottom of the fame food chain face as money and decent gigs constantly come up short, disjointed as pathos in a Bilgewaters diner explodes in the name of rebellion and freedom without absolutist corruption is persistently chased, even if Hedwig's own unhappiness behind the glam-punk mask prevents her bandmates from pursuing their own dreams. Stitching together the themes of radical queerness in Hedwig's peculiar Berlin-to-America voyage with the universally recognizable desires of longing, to be whole and united with another person, as betrayal, desires of drag femininity, oppurtinity, and Hedwig's angry inch all prove as important obstacles towards Hedwig finding the love she desperately craves. The grotesque attributes of dysphoria and heartache fuel Hedwig's hunt for authenticity, the same kind of authenticity found throughout "Walk on the Wild Side", and though these tribulations prevent Hedwig from being seen as a perfect queer, they allow her to be defined as more human and with the potential to be a better person, with the early internal animated graffiti of "Deny me or be doomed" being subtle foreshadowing towards the introspection necessary to mend gender and personal fluctuations.

If René Descartes' undeniable proof of certain knowledge was "I think, therefore I am", Hedwig and the Angry Inch vamps that phrase into "I sing, therefore I am", and Hedwig's coping mechanisms of her internal turbulence find their best and most alluring expression through the multiple songs that worm their way into my ears, with confidence in its music-video direction and boundary-breaking eclecticism that moves punk outside its comfort zone with ballads, torch songs, and doo-wop bubblegum, among others, that allows its own varied viewers to pick and choose for their favorite songs. The songs I've thought about the most tend to lean heavily on the punk-scale, "Angry Inch"'s infectious hook (seriously it's been like five years since I last saw this and that chorus constantly eeks into my head) and diva attitude embody the soundtrack the most as a sort of "mission statement" for the entire project, "Exquisite Corpse" zig-zags in being composed punk verses and uptempo rock bridges before bludgeoning itself into a noisy Sonic Youth-flavored flurry of hammering guitars and frizzled-amp guitars, and "Wig In a Box" finds glam rock at its happiest and deceptively cheerful that I couldn't help but softly sing-along to when the film asks me to in its dysfunctional Partridge Family-style interlude. Weighty in its resonance and almost more essential a viewing now then in its original release, it's a revolution of a film worth popping in at least once this month.

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