In our weekly series, we revisit some of our favorite music movies—from artist docs and concert films to biopics and fictional fantasies—that are available to stream or rent digitally. Spoilers ahead.
The rock’n’roll drag diva played by John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch was born 31,000 feet in the sky. In 1990, Mitchell was an aspiring playwright and erstwhile actor en route to New York from Los Angeles when he met musician Stephen Trask, the only other person not watching the in-flight movie. The two quickly bonded over their mutual tastes in film and music. It was the start of a lifelong friendship that would lead to this darkly funny rock musical—first an off-Broadway hit, then a cult film and Tony-winning Broadway production—about an “internationally ignored song stylist” with an ax to grind against her superstar ex-boyfriend.
Frustrated by his work as an actor, Mitchell was eager to kick off his playwriting career and found a kindred spirit in Trask. The two built the foundation for Hedwig for over a year, incorporating far-reaching and idiosyncratic inspirations: Plato’s symposiums, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, and malleable gender performances from the glam-rock era. In the summer of 1994, they started workshopping the show at the downtown NYC gay punk club SqueezeBox!, where Trask led the house band. At the musician’s suggestion, the protagonist shifted to a drag character, a disappointed singer who’s left in the dust.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch didn’t exactly begin as a story about a flamboyant rocker, but instead a meek Army general’s son. Mitchell himself moved more than 20 times as the child of an Army commandant, a lifestyle that isolated him as a young person struggling with his sexuality. He found respite in bands like the Cars and the B-52’s, as well as glam-rock groups like Sweet. When Mitchell was 14, his family settled for a time near a base in Junction City, Kansas. There, he met Helga, a German-born Army wife who lived in a trailer park and worked as a prostitute. She’d smoke cigarettes in a tube top and capri pants and let him drink beer and act out pop songs in her trailer.
Standing onstage at SqueezeBox! some 20 years later, that brief memory of Helga spun out into Hedwig’s winged Farrah Fawcett wig, towering heels, and torn fishnet stockings. Though Mitchell had never done drag or sang in a band, he inhabited the pithy German mannerisms and performative bravura instantly, earning high praise from club regulars.
Over the next four years, Mitchell and Trask developed Hedwig and the Angry Inch into a full-fledged production, with Trask providing original songs and playing Skszp, Angry Inch’s bandleader. By the time the show opened at the Jane Street Theater in 1998, its lurid backstory was set: Born in East Germany the year the Berlin Wall went up, Hedwig (née Hansel) became obsessed with gender-bending glam and punk gods like David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop via American Armed Forces radio. He met a G.I. sugar daddy who offered to whisk him away to America under one condition: a sex change operation. He reluctantly agreed but the surgery was botched, leaving our protagonist with the titular “angry inch” of flesh. Rechristened Hedwig, she was plopped down in Junction City and soon left to fend for herself. She wrote music and dated/mentored Tommy, a confused teen who eventually dumped her, stole her songs, and scored it big as a proto-Marilyn Manson. The timeline catches up to Hedwig and her band years later, as she shrieks out the whole sad story onstage at a seedy New York nightclub.
Equal parts wounded tragedy, high-camp drama, and death-defying rock musical, the original Hedwig show blended concepts about gender and sexuality with a razored punk edge. (Hedwig’s queerness aside, Mitchell cast actress Miriam Shor as her aggrieved ex-drag queen husband/backup singer, further challenging the audience’s assumptions about gender in theater and rock’n’roll.) The production netted a rave review from The New York Times and became a hot ticket, with both Bowie and Reed turning up to see it. After a year off-Broadway, Mitchell started turning the role over to different actors, owing to the sheer physical cost of embodying the character every night. But when influential independent film producer Christine Vachon inquired about a screen adaptation, Mitchell got right back into Hedwig’s heels to star and direct.
Released in 2001, the film is a beam of pure camp spectacle, full of sumptuous backdrops and shot through with the underdog spirit of the original. Hedwig’s journey is recast as a flashback-heavy tour of shoddy seafood restaurants, which is really just a guise for stalking Tommy’s stadium tour. While he sings her songs to thousands nearby, she belts in front of a salad bar to stunned senior citizens just trying to eat their crab dinners. It’s a narrative tweak that foregrounds Mitchell’s cutting sense of humor, filling out the story’s edges with constant sight gags. In one of the best, at the women’s festival Menses Fair, the camera pans across a Stonehenge of porta-potties on a misty hill until it finally settles on a slapdash stage where Hedwig is relegated, drowned out by a folk song and playing to a solitary goth girl.
Where the show could only gesture towards Kansas and Germany, the film cuts in archival footage of the Berlin Wall and sets Hedwig’s prismatic wigs against the drab Midwest desert. During the life-affirming punk anthem “Wig in a Box,” her Kansas trailer opens up into a stage bedecked with lights and a lyric scrawl along the bottom of the screen, for Rocky Horror-style karaoke potential. And the music is still as potent as ever, a brew of swaggering glam rock, mournful singer-songwriter ballads, and searing punk blasts. Mitchell’s careening vocals go from a Meat Loaf howl to a tender coo; in one of his best performances, on “Wicked Little Town,” he recalls a world-weary ’70s troubadour and cuts to the bone.
The movie loses none of the story’s heart in its shift to the screen. Hedwig’s journey to a whole sense of self, realized at the end of the film in an ambiguously Lynchian rebirth, isn’t about living between male and female, or any of her tortured romances. It’s a love story from Hedwig to herself: She takes the bullshit of her past and present and uses it as kindling to create a future unbound by rules or binaries, then offers you the same peace should you need it. That message continues to resonate powerfully for a new generation of genderqueer audiences; just last month the soapy CW drama Riverdale used songs from the movie for their annual musical episode.
When it was released, Hedwig won Sundance’s Audience Award and a Best Director trophy for Mitchell, quickly fomenting another wave of obsession. The movie took the cultish fervor around Hedwig to a whole other level, turning the character into an underground icon overnight—and inspiring enough Halloween costumes and local productions to last a lifetime. (There’s even a Hedwig indie rock tribute album.) By the time the musical officially arrived on Broadway in 2014, repackaged for tourists and families in Times Square, there was an undeniable gloss to the show, but its energy and power remained intact.
Today the movie stands as Hedwig’s purest depiction, as vulgar and unfettered as intended. Then and now, she is an avatar of outsiderness—not only for queer audiences who recognize themselves, but also those drawn to her all-embracing, icily hilarious personality. With the film’s success, Hedwig’s story effectively cracked the early-2000s straight-man’s world it was born into, finding its audience by imagining a one-of-a-kind individualism. “We’re all freaks, we’re all losers at some point in our life,” Mitchell once told Out of Hedwig’s universality. “And if she can find some kind of solace, maybe we can too, and maybe that involves putting on a wig.”
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An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the play’s origins and has been updated to reflect this.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork