PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Hedwig Schmidt (John Cameron Mitchell) feels out of place. While this experience is no doubt familiar to many, few carry her particular baggage. A transsexual rock singer who likes to wear miniskirts and a big yellow Farrah Fawcett-wingy wig, Hedwig lives between worlds, between genders, selves, and desires. And much like anyone who’s feeling alienated, she’s trying to figure out who she is and where she belongs, “spinning like a 45.” She tells her story through flashbacks and a series of songs she performs at strip-mall seafood restaurants. While you may not feel exactly part of the variously bemused, bored, or fanatically devoted audiences in the film, you do get a vague sense of what it’s like to perform in places where the decor includes stuffed flounders nailed to the walls.
Born in Communist East Berlin (the divided city and the Wall become obvious metaphors for Hedwig’s own experience of self-division), Hedwig comes to the States with her first husband, a U.S. serviceman named Luther (Maurice Dean Wint). Spotting the young boy (then named Hansel), sunning himself by the garbage dump, Luther seduces him with gummy bears and other sweets, then declares his love and pays for a sex change operation, so that their marriage can be legitimate. Unfortunately, the surgery is botched, leaving the now renamed Hedwig with a smidge of her male genitals left intact, now called her “angry inch.”
Abandoned by Luther almost as soon as the newlyweds arrive Stateside, Hedwig finds a way to survive—financially and emotionally—by singing. At first, she’s doing cafes and malls on her own, but soon she finds her one true love, a boy who sobs when he hears her sing. For obvious, Who-based reasons, this pretty young boy is named Tommy (Michael Pitt). Mitchell, who also wrote and directed the film, says that he based part of Hedwig on a biologically female babysitter he had as a child, and in this aspect, Tommy represents part of Mitchell’s infatuation with this woman: perhaps it’s best just to say that the relations between gender, memory, and identity in the film are complex.
Hedwig recalls in her songs and helpful voice-over comments (often accompanied by illustrative flashbacks) that she and Tommy fell into a kind of desperate, endless, and impossible love. In the flashbacks, you watch them gaze adoringly at one another, write songs together, and perform for delirious teenaged girls: “In three months,” Hedwig remembers, “We were out-grossing monster trucks in Wichita.” This is a delirious time, very adolescent, and so, short-lived. Tommy and Hedwig dream of escape from their low-rent existence. And then the other shoe drops: Tommy makes the alarming discovery that Hedwig isn’t precisely a girl (a moment introduced by Maggie Moore’s lush Whitney-like vocals on “I Will Always Love You”), and he panics . . . all the way to the bank. Claiming their co-written songs as his own, Tommy becomes an androgynous “rock icon” named Tommy Gnosis (the last name is a birthday “gift” from Hedwig, and underlines the film’s focus on Gnostic mythology and origin myths, or perhaps more abstractly, the constructions of self-knowledge). Or rather, he claims the songs he and Hedwig wrote together as his own, in order to jumpstart his career, a career that is suddenly huge.
Determined to make her case known, Hedwig wants to get Tommy’s attention, to declare her love, and, if all else fails, get her vengeance and righteous writing credit. She puts together her own band, part glam-rock, part-grunge, part drag-queen fabulosity. She calls her band the Angry Inch, I honor of her frustration at Tommy’s inability to accept her as she is. In a series of performances, Hedwig belts out her so-far sad life story: “I rose from off of the doctor’s slab / I lost a piece of my heart / Now everyone gets to take a stab / They cut me up into parts.” With the band’s sympathetic and infinitely patient manager (Andrea Martin), Hedwig contrives to have all their gigs correspond with Tommy’s—when he plays an arena, the Angry Inch performs across the street at whatever seafood restaurant they can book (cutely, they are all called Bilgewater’s). Eventually—and this brings us into the film’s present—Hedwig’s band-mates grow tired of her obsession with Tommy Gnosis. One of the more outspoken is Hedwig’s second husband, Yitzhak (played as a man by Miriam Shor, a dead-on performance that exacerbates the film’s ongoing genderfuck).
These bare bones of Hedwig‘s plot don’t really do it justice, because the film is really less interested in story and character than in spectacle and cultural constructions of identities. Pulling together rock and drag excesses (much like The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Bowie’s Ziggy shows), the movie presents number after number, interspersed with animation sequences by Emily Hubley. Jumping back and forth in time, stepping in and out of Hedwig’s consciousness, the film’s unconventional organization is in part a result of its origins as a drag show, then off-Broadway musical, both conveying Hedwig’s story as a series of autobiographical songs, performed in grandly hybrid rock-operatic style—sprawling vocals, spangles and disco lights, expansive Meatloaf-style orchestrations. The film is also structured around Hedwig’s philosophical bent, part Platonic and part Gnostic Christian, that grounds her investment in the myth of the “Origin of Love.” Feeling incomplete (and performing this feeling in her aggressive gender ambiguity), she’s searching for her other half, whom she identifies as Tommy.
Hedwig’s determination to set her world “right” (or at least understand how to live in the one she’s got) is complicated by the fact that Tommy is a young and beautiful boy who doesn’t really know what he wants, easily distracted by the trappings of fame and wealth, speaks to another of the film’s interests, in contemporary confusions concerning identity and celebrity. Where Hedwig’s performances twist disco-queeny super-style around all sorts of beloved pop-cultural detritus (Little Richard, Farrah, the Captain and Tennille, acid-wash jeans, McDonalds), Tommy’s more like a tragic character out of Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Goldmine, haunted by the living ghosts of Jagger, Lou Reed, Paul Stanley, and Placebo’s Brian Molko. These performances, particularly by the enormously charismatic Mitchell, propel the film. The surrounding scenes, as in most musicals, are less compelling, despite solid performances by Martin as the long-suffering manager and Pitt as the sulky, mostly unformed Tommy.
The film doesn’t really interrogate the musical genre (as did, say, Dancer in the Dark), but it does remind us that rock per se has a long history of celebrating alienation and ambiguity. And that history in itself underlines rock’s recent inclination to dote on aggressive heterosexuality, leaving pop as the primary vehicle for working through sex-gender identity uncertainties (think of ‘NSync’s “girlish” boys, so described by cultural critic Gayle Wald). While Hedwig occasionally lapses into a kind of pop sappiness, it’s also upfront about all that, declaring its faith in the mythology of love, its capacity to “create something that wasn’t there before.”