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'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' 20 years of the LGBTQ musical


All that you need to know about John Cameron Mitchell’s classic of LGBT cinema, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, can be found in the film’s recurring ballad ‘The Origin Of Love’.

The song outlines Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, which describes three initial sexes, each made up of two beings attached together. ‘The children of the sun’ were men glued back-to-back. ‘The children of the earth’ “looked like two girls rolled up in one”. Then finally ‘the children of the moon’ were “part sun part earth part daughter part son”. Each of the three beings was then separated into two, which Hedwig, the film’s main character, refers to as “a sad story how we became lonely two-legged creatures” always searching for our other half. 

It’s a powerful song that highlights just why Hedwig and the Angry Inch is such a classic, contextualising the struggle of LGBTQ rights within a historical text whilst simultaneously forging a unique creative path of its own. 

Adapted from John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s stage musical of the same name, the film follows Hedwig Robinson (John Cameron Mitchell), a genderqueer East German rock singer who falls in love with a younger man, the beautiful and stylish Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt). Becoming his mentor and musical collaborator, the two form a relationship before Tommy steals her music and becomes wildly successful doing so. The following story follows Hedwig and her backing band as they tail Tommy Gnosis on tour, exploring Hedwig’s troubled past and identity in the process. 

“It is clear that I must find my other half. But is it a he or a she? What does this person look like? Identical to me?” Hedwig asks herself in a touching monologue. The fictional biopic is really a fairy tale story for Hedwig, performed with great fervour by John Cameron Mitchell, giving the central character a bold, electric drive. As the actor and director stated in an interview with Criterion, “The character is a survivor, and picks up the pieces and makes something beautiful out of them,” said writer-director-star John Cameron Mitchell”. 

This is encapsulated perfectly within the early song ‘Wig in a Box’, perhaps the strongest song in the whole film, exploring the constructed identity that Hedwig constructs for herself.

“I put on some make-up, And turn on the tape deck, And pull the wig back on my head, Suddenly I’m Miss Midwest Midnight checkout queen”, Hedwig sings, staring into the mirror on her dressing table. The song turns into a defiant chorus and expressive poem about self-appreciation. Speaking about the power embroiled in this scene, Cameron Mitchell commented the following, “When she takes the wig down from the shelf and defines herself, creates herself, everyone can relate to that part of it: the idea of self-invention and self-discovery and defining yourself.” 

Hedwig’s story comes crafted from a time less tolerant of LGBTQ+ ideals, formed by Cameron Mitchell as an exploration of his own feelings of sexuality, creating a truly touching story that radiates love and individualism. “Labels should be about freedom as opposed to tying people to another set of rules” the director commented, something Hedwig, the preacher of self-love, knows all too well.