Words: Simon Button
As queer anthems go, ‘Wig In A Box’ from Hedwig And The Angry Inch is right up there with ‘I Am What I Am’ from La Cage Aux Folles and ‘Raise You Up’ from Kinky Boots at it celebrates downing a few vermouths, turning up the music, slapping on some make-up, putting on a Farrah Fawcett hairpiece and feeling absolutely fabulous.
The heroine of John Cameron Mitchell’s musical (written in collaboration with composer and lyricist Stephen Trask) has more wigs than Cher, cheekbones to die for and a petulant pout that’s a don’t-mess-with-me warning.
And Hedwig has every reason to pout. Born and raised in Berlin, she’s got an angry inch as the result of a botched sex change insisted upon by an American sugar daddy soldier as a condition of marriage, who relocated her to the States then abandoned her for a boy.
And she’s furious at Tommy Gnosis, a rock star and former lover getting rich from the songs they penned together while she is an “internationally ignored song stylist” scratching a living with her band on the Bilgewater Restaurants circuit.
Hedwig started out as a glam rock-influenced Off-Broadway musical that premiered in 1998 and ran for two years, initially with Mitchell in the lead before a bunch of others stepped up to the mic - including Michael Cerveris and, most intriguingly, Brat Pack star Ally Sheedy. The show made it to the West End in 2000, with Cerveris playing Hedwig just as Mitchell was shepherding it to the screen for a July 2001 release.
Thirteen years later it played Broadway proper with Neil Patrick Harris as the first of several Hedwigs. I saw his successor Andrew Rannells, who brought a buffed-up butch/femme duality to the role that was quite something to behold. But the leaner, meaner Mitchell remains the definitive Hedwig and never more so than in the movie version.
It bombed at the box office but, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show before it, gained a cult following thanks to its weird wonderfulness, in-your-face soundtrack, punk fashion sense and Mitchell’s 100% committed performance as he flits between rage and tenderness, sings up a storm and lets the quips fly (example: “They threw tomatoes after the show so I had a nice salad”).
As Time magazine critic Stephanie Zacharek notes in the booklet that comes with Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition of the film: “Hedwig is a magnificent pop-art invention” with ruby red lips the exact same colour as Judy Garland’s slippers in The Wizard Of Oz. And my how those lips pop in this 4K digital restoration of a film that, despite its low budget, is a riot of colour.
The transfer is stunning and the extra features are generous as they delve into the development, the music, the look and the legacy of this queer classic.
There are some priceless pictures in the booklet too, such as Mitchell as Hedwig photographed from behind taking a leak in New York’s East River and a collage of Hedwig’s many looks with wigs not in boxes but placed firmly on her ferocious, fabulous head.
'Hedwig And The Angry Inch' is out now on Criterion Collection Blu-ray.