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Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Hedwig (née Hansel) was born in East Berlin in 1961, the year the wall went up- As a young man, he found a GI, who was prepared to take him to the States and get married – but only after he had the appropriate surgery. The surgeon botched the job, leaving Hedwig with an “Angry Inch”. She went to the US with the GI but he soon dumped her in Kansas.

When the film starts, Hedwig is leading a band of Eastern European musicians who play songs based on her autobiographical tales of mutilation in salad bars of the Bilgewater restaurant chain. Despite the occasional customer wearing blonde Hedwig foam wigs, most diners are deeply offended, and it is not uncommon for the gigs to end with walkouts and/or fist fights.

Hedwig’s manager organises concerts throughout the country, always close to the megagigs played by Hedwig’s nemesis Tommy Gnosis. Tommy used to be in the band but now is a proper pop star, much to the disgust of Hedwig, who claims she wrote all his songs. Her main aim now is to have the press photograph Tommy and her together which would somehow prove her authorship of his hits.

Plot is probably not the most important aspect of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, nor are production values, and the film wears its low budget as a badge of honour. There are a lot of metaphors about a divided self/city, some inventive use of cartoons, and all in all its a whole bunch of fun while championing transgressive sexuality. What’s not to like?

Well, I definitely think that its a film to see – if only because its not just that they don’t make films like this any more, they never made films like this. But for a musical (the film started as an off Broadway musical and contains lots of songs), most of the music isn’t great. The songs are ok, hummable maybe, but nothing you remember after you’ve left the cinema.

So, although the film aspires towards being a new Rocky Horror Picture Show (boy, it wants to be Rocky Horror) or Cabaret, maybe, it lacks something that makes those films so special. In Rocky Horror and Cabaret, you knew that you were never far away from an astounding song – so much so, that you’re prepared to blank out the few duds on the soundtrack. Here, less so.

Maybe its not fair to say that a film is not as good as two great films in the same genre, so let’s look at it a different way. Hedwig teaches Tommy to throw away his early bland influences – Frampton Comes Alive, or Kansas, Boston, Europe, America, Asia and all those bands that make you travel sick. Instead she points him towards Bowie, Iggy and Lou Reed – role models for any aspirant musician.

But if you listen to the music in the film, there may be the occasional song that sounds a little like Bowie in his singalong era, but we rarely or never come anywhere close to the danger of Iggy and Lou Reed. Instead, the sound tends more towards MOR. Which is fine as far as it goes – plenty of MOR can be perfectly pleasant to listen to – but the contrast with the angry lyrics appears to be purely accidental. These are songs that think they are dangerous, but really aren’t.

By a strange twist of fate, Hedwig and the Angry Inch was released twenty years ago around the same time as Moulin Rouge. While I know which one I’d prefer to see (and its not Baz Luhrmann’s overblown waste of a huge budget), both films share some common features. They are each a little too eager to be loved, all fur coat and no knickers as they say where I’m from. And while Hedwig may show contempt for the idea of wearing knickers, sometimes you need the structure to stop the house from falling down.

Let’s finish now before the metaphors destroy themselves. Yes, do go and see this film (if its still showing 20 years on). It is good. It’s just not quite as good as it thinks it is.

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