Recently Hedwig and the Angry Inch was inducted into the AV Club’s “New Cult Canon”, prompting me to revisit it. I first “discovered” the film on a video tape I picked up on impulse from a charity shop, a couple of years ago. I vaguely remembered the film getting good reviews when it came out, and seeing a big glossy book about it when I was in SF one summer, but other than that all I had to go on was the blurb on the back of the box. The film kicks straight in with a punky little number called “Tear Me Down”, sung by what appears to be a drag queen dressed as the Berlin Wall, in the cosy setting of a family-friendly chain restaurant. Needless to say, it was a bit of a “WTF!?” moment, and I was hooked immediately. I couldn’t help wishing that all rock bands had the wit and visual flair of the fictional band rocking out on the screen in front of me, and that all lead singers could share even a tenth of Hedwig’s showmanship.
Still, there was something about the back-up singer with the beard and bandana that was troubling me… I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was something slightly odd about him. As the film wound on, it became more obvious… he wasn’t a “he” at all, but a woman in drag… a woman named Miriam Shor, in fact. Apparently she’s been a part of Hedwig since it was a way-off-Broadway theatre piece, which explains why the three leads had such a tight act worked out. It’s just a joy to watch the performance scenes… scattered as they are through a tragicomic story that follows the rise of a young “girly boy” named ‘Hedwig’ from the stark poverty of Communist East Germany to dime-store decadence and gossip-rag infamy in America. Serving as writer, director and lead actor, John Cameron Mitchell presents us with a profoundly sympathetic protagonist, especially for those on the margins of the mainstream, but it’s hard to stomach the way he bullies the benign, heartsick ‘Yitzhak’. I’m glad I upgraded from my old VHS copy to the DVD, because (among many other fascinating and illuminating extras) it features a deleted scene depicting the first meeting between their characters, and how within seconds of being introduced, Hedwig had humbled and housebroken his biggest fan. Shame, shame, shame.
It confused me a little to read the AV Club’s critic define Yitzhak’s ambition to join a cruise-ship production of Rent as a desire to escape into “comforting mediocrity”. I’m not quite as avid a fan of Rent as I once was, but it’s hardly the toothless Disney cartoon that their writer makes it out to be. “Sodomy, it’s between God and me!” is not a line you’re likely to hear in the next Hannah Montana movie, is it? Or perhaps I’m just too easily shocked/impressed? No doubt if I’d been born and raised in a city with its own drag clubs and avant-garde art-punk scene, I’d be a little more jaded about such things. And I admit, if forced to choose between the two, I’d probably plump for Hedwig, because the grinding tragedy of Rent is a lot harder to take seriously post-Team America… but this small-town hick will still remember it as an exceptionally powerful piece of musical theatre. And you can take my signed programme when you pry it out of my cold, dead hand!