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Near the end of the opening number of Hedwig and the Angry Inch – a roaring, cape-twirling whether-you-like-it-or-not rocker called “Tear Me Down” – star, co-writer and director John Cameron Mitchell sings the line “ain’t much of a difference between a bridge and wall.” Apart from being another in a string of Berlin Wall references that fill the song, it is at first a confusing phrase. Don’t walls divide us, while bridges connect us?
Like almost every other lyric in “Tear Me Down,” though, the line ultimately serves as part of Hedwig’s mission statement. Hedwig’s first act in the film is to spread her cape, declare herself “The new Berlin Wall,” and then dare someone to tear her down. In the moment, it sounds like she’s speaking to the offended elderly diners at the crummy seafood restaurant where she’s performing, but as the film progresses, you realize she’s daring you to tear her down, pick her apart, build her back up again, and indeed realize there’s really not much of a difference between a bridge and a wall. You can cross them both. It’s just that one’s a lot harder to cross than the other.
Like the character herself, Hedwig is “a collage…all sewn up,” a potent list of ingredients that form a potion that might sound terrible if you haven’t tasted it yourself. It combines a transgender rockstar who moves from East Germany to the American Midwest, a Christian teenager eager for stardom, a centerpiece song adapted from Plato, rock ‘n’ roll swagger brushing up against creeping vulnerability, booze, prostitution, scandal, revenge, a quest for a real and permanent love, and more, and that’s just the stage version, which is essentially an extended monologue punctuated by songs.
For the film adaptation of the off-Broadway Tony winner, Mitchell and co-writer Stephen Trask (he wrote all the songs and appears in the film as the guitarist Skszp) had to both expand Hedwig’s horizons while also maintaining its intimacy. Characters like Hedwig’s “Man Friday through Thursday” Yitzhak (Miriam Shor) are given a bigger story, new characters are added, and the story moves beyond the stage. Despite the changes, it still feels like it’s all Hedwig’s tragicomic, glitter-dusted glam rock dream, a place where she can fly over a restaurant full of angry customers or turn a wall of her ramshackle trailer into a stage where she shimmies in a two-piece outfit made entirely of human hair. It’s also a place where the dualities of the story can come to life in ways that even the stage version is perhaps incapable of.
Mitchell’s Hedwig is a character brimming with contradictions far beyond the peculiarities of her body left behind by a botched sex change operation. She’s bitingly funny and instantly lovable onscreen, but the bite has a venom that she often doesn’t apologize for even if it when poisons those closest to her. She’s glamorous, even sexy, but isn’t above lying around in a pile of old tires while knocking back a Zima. She’s often gloriously self-centered, yet spends much of the film clinging to a mythology she’s built about finding her “other half,” a mythology laid out in the musical’s most famous song, “The Origin of Love.” She looks like a glam rock goddess walking around in trailer parks and cheap imitations of Red Lobster, walking on tables and shouting about her precious bras in a laundromat. The final effect is a larger-than-life, but somehow still very human, puzzle of a person, and the real solution is that there are no missing pieces. Hedwig is Hedwig, and she’s her own other half.
As a piece of filmmaking, Hedwig is assembled like a raucous rock concert with a perfectly crafted setlist. It breaks into “Tear Me Down” within seconds, takes you through the feel-good “Sugar Daddy” and “Wig In a Box,” rips through the vicious punk frenzy of “Exquisite Corpse,” and culminates in the ecstatic white hot triumph of “Midnight Radio.” Most of the songs were sung live for extra intensity, and in between jams with the band Hedwig brushes in extra color with colorful collaborators like Shor, Michael Pitt as Hedwig’s lost love Tommy Gnosis, Andrea Martin as the hilarious manager Phyllis Stein, and Maurice Dean Wint as Luther, the sugar daddy American G.I. who spirits Hedwig away to a new life in America that isn’t what she thought it would be.
Everyone gets their little solo, everyone has their moment, and it’s all engineered into a funny, scary, melancholy forge from which Hedwig emerges, shining like the brightest star, someone who didn’t cross the bridge, but instead climbed the wall. It’s a harder journey, but anyone who’s ever struggled to get an off-Broadway musical or an independent film produced and succeeded will tell you it’s a rewarding one, and Hedwig just happens to be the perfect icon for both.
Matthew Jackson is a freelance pop culture writer/nerd-for-hire and Contributing Editor at Blastr.com. Find him on Twitter at @awalrusdarkly.