Hedwig and the Angry Inch is based on the punk rock musical from John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask (Trask wrote the songs), which was a cult smash Off-Broadway in 1998. It stemmed out of Cameron Mitchell frequenting SqueezeBox, a punk drag bar in New York City in the ’90s and eventually coming up with this character called Hedwig. Hedwig is a German genderqueer (Cameron Mitchell has explicitly said Hedwig is not transgender) punk singer. Initially he would do rewritten covers, everything from the more obvious, like David Bowie and The Velvet Underground, to the more surprising, like Yoko Ono and Pere Ubu, in his act.
Quickly Trask starting writing some original songs for Cameron Mitchell to perform as Hedwig, and after essentially workshopping the character and songs on stage, the show premiered Off-Broadway at the Jane Street Theatre on Valentine’s Day 1998. Word of mouth immediately spread, and soon it was the hippest ticket in New York. Eventually Hedwig made it to Broadway, with Neil Patrick Harris as the title character in 2014. It’s been now performed in numerous countries, and many notable people of various genders have played the role, such as Michael C. Hall, Ally Sheedy and Darren Criss, to name a few.
Cameron Mitchell was a struggling actor before he conceived of Hedwig (he can be spotted in episodes of The Twilight Zone and MacGyver from the 1980s). He was approached during the show’s Off-Broadway run about a possible film adaptation. He developed the adaptation at Sundance film labs, and by 2000 they were shooting the film for New Line Cinema. Cameron Mitchell was always adamant that he was going to do an Orson Welles and write, direct and star in the film. It would end up becoming the toast of the Sundance Film Festival in 2001, and its stature has only grown over the years.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch probably plays better now than it did, as more consciousness about gender identity has emerged over the last decade, including Facebook’s infamous and frankly a bit silly “71” gender options. It’s also not a victim narrative, because it’s essentially about this singer who does have some horrible things happen to them included, the botched sex-change operation (the “angry inch” of the title), but in the end it’s about finding the love within yourself and that’s about as universal story as you can get. There are also themes of dualism through Hedwig’s ideas about gender and self; Berlin, where Hedwig is from; and how you individualistically navigate through all of that.
The film is somewhat messy, but that’s just the nature of the source material and being a first-time filmmaker. It’s a showcase for Cameron Mitchell, as it should be—he had inhabited this character for years, and still does occasionally. Michael Pitt plays Tommy Gnosis, Hedwig’s teenage love interest. Hedwig teaches him everything, and eventually Tommy steals all of Hedwig’s songs and becomes a famous rock star with them. Pitt was the “it boy” of early to mid-’00s indie cinema, but in recent years has fallen out of favour except for his two-season role in Boardwalk Empire as Jimmy and some supporting roles here and there.
The film is also incredibly well photographed by Frank G. DeMarco, who has gone on to work with Cameron Mitchell on every film he has directed, including his most recent, How to Talk to Girls at Parties, which is a quasi-companion piece to Hedwig in some respects.
Criterion has compiled a fantastic and somewhat exhausting package for this release, which includes the previous DVD release’s commentary, 85-minute making-of and deleted scenes (with or without commentary). The new features include a reunion of the crew, including Cameron Mitchell, a featurette dedicated to the music, the Anatomy of a Scene documentary that played on the Sundance Channel, and perhaps the best one of all: Cameron Mitchell going through his Hedwig archive and pulling out various artifacts and talking about them. The trailer finishes off the features on the disc, but the booklet includes essays, reproductions of Mick Rock’s portraits of Hedwig, and excerpts from Plato’s Symposium and The Gospel of Thomas, which were major inspirations for Hedwig.