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Why It Works: Hedwig And The Angry Inch

11.27.2015

Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.

****SPOILERS AHEAD****

It's been a pretty fantastic couple of years for the transgender community, at least in the entertainment world. Laverne Cox of Orange Is The New Black became the first trans woman to be nominated for an Emmy, Jeffrey Tambor won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his performance in Transparent, Jared Leto's portrayal of Rayon in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB earned him an Academy Award, Netflix's Sense8, co-created by Lana Wachowski and also featuring a trans character, received a good deal of attention, and Tom Hooper's THE DANISH GIRL, a film we will certainly hearing about come award season, hits theaters this weekend. Add to that list the return of Hedwig and the Angry Inch to Broadway, with Neil Patrick Harris, Michael C. Hall, Taye Diggs, creator John Cameron Mitchell, and others assuming the title role. While the stage show, presented as a concert with monologues, is the original, the 2001 film version took things to the next level. Pushing boundaries, bringing a realism to the musical genre, and featuring an unforgettable lead, HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH is an emotional journey and certainly one of the most underrated films of the early 2000's. Here's why it works:

WHY WE LIKE THE CHARACTERS:

HEDWIG is, if nothing else, a bedazzled platform on which to showcase its main character. Through flashback, we follow Hansel from boyhood to womanhood to internationally ignored song stylist and get a glimpse of what makes this character so unique. Above all else, this is not some one dimensional, familiar character who grows up watching Judy Garland movies and trying on dresses when he's alone. Hansel grows up in East Berlin loving Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie, dealing with a broken society, an absent father, and a troubled mother. When an American GI convinces Hansel to get a sex-change in an effort to flee the country- and then promptly abandons her- we see the newly-born Hedwig come into her own. By the time she meets Tommy Gnosis, we've seen Hedwig blossom from a similarly naive little boy into a confident woman- albeit a world-weary, heartbroken, and jaded one.

Cross-gender casting Yitzhak was such a genius choice.

WHY WE CARE:

You know that moment when you're watching a serious scene between two actors and one of them suddenly starts singing for no reason? Yeah, musicals are weird. More importantly, songs can really pull you out of the story when not done well. Yes, the character is sad. We got that. We don't need to hear about it for the next 3-5 minutes. HEDWIG combats this by most of the songs being performances by Hedwig and her band. We are discovering her past while also seeing The Angry Inch struggle to earn a fanbase. As the film goes on, the performance rule unravels a bit, but it does so in such a calculated and artistic way that we would probably be disappointed if the rule wasn't broken. Moreover, most of the songs have something else going on, be it animations, flashbacks, a peeping Tommy, a bouncing wig sing-a-long, or just the hilarious reactions of the unwilling Bilgewater's audience members. As for the actual plot, wherein Hedwig effectively stalks Tommy Gnosis by following him on tour and playing nearby venues, there's not much to cling to, but that's not really the point. So long as you're on board with the character of Hedwig and the style of the film, it's enjoyable enough just to sit back and see what's coming next.

I feel like Michael Pitt chooses scripts entirely based on the weirdness factor... and I approve.

WHY WE'RE SATISFIED:

Since HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH plays like a slice of life movie without a driving plot line, the film runs the risk of leaving us feeling unfulfilled at the end. Instead, we get the rare ending-we-didn't-know-we-wanted (where most films feature the ending-we-saw-coming-five-minutes-in). Hedwig makes several references throughout to finding her "other half," but it's treated less as a plot point and more as a general feeling. Through her reconnection with Tommy, we see both characters undergo a full circle transformation, from innocent and emotional to grand and distant and finally back to a wiser, more stable innocence. Hedwig passes the wig to Yitzhak and strips down to nothing- now part Hedwig, part Hansel, part Tommy. The actual resolution of the plot is fairly impressionistic and open to interpretation- whether Hedwig and Tommy actually have closure, or whether Hedwig has simply made peace with her inner Tommy, or whether she has simply decided enough is enough. The main point here is that we see our heroine let down her guard, refusing to give in to apathy. To see her stripped bare, sharing an emotional dreamlike moment with Tommy Gnosis, and shuffling off to walk naked through the streets of New York is to see our fragmented diva reformed and born anew.

The stripped down Hedwig is a sobering sight after spending so much time with the larger-than-life version.

WHY WE REMEMBER:

John Cameron Mitchell has said that the director they looked most to when deciding on a style for HEDWIG was Hal Ashby (HAROLD AND MAUDE, BEING THERE, THE LAST DETAIL). In a world full of spectacle and modernity, choosing to model your movie musical after quiet 70's films is a bold, refreshing move. To be fair, a movie version of a play should take advantage of the tools film allows, but HEDWIG does this through animation, flashback, mood, and set coverage rather than taking more obvious, musical-ish routes. The botched sex change premise of the film could have also been gimmicked up for shock value points, but it really doesn't come into play for more than one song and a couple of comments. In short (sorry), HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH stands on its own by truly being a one of a kind work- realist, irreverent, hilarious, unapologetic, heartbreaking, and joyous. Oh, also the songs are pretty great.

Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!

If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at brianbitner@joblo.com.

Source: JoBlo.com

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