If there is one film that I can say is so criminally underrated that it hurts, it is John Cameron Mitchell's film adaptation of his award-winning musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It took me 19 years to realize that this musical even existed and that was 19 years too long.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch follows the story of Hansel Schmidt, a man who had grown up in Soviet-occupied East Berlin during the 1970s. Seduced by an American sergeant named Luther, Hansel falls in love and plans to escape to the US. In a brutal act of manipulation, Hansel is convinced by his lover that he would make a better woman, forcing him to assume the identity of his mother, Hedwig, and undergo a botched SRS surgery.
And yes... The "angry inch" Hedwig is referring to is her genitals.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is absolutely nothing like any other musical you will see, and that is a darn good thing. The musical was introduced in the late 1990s, at a time when transgender people were outcasted from both LGB and cis-gender communities, and punk rock just didn't correlate with Broadway's calibre. The main reason why Hedwig's story of self-discovery is so overlooked today and probably shouldn't be.
The story's ability to explore the oppressiveness of binary gender norms is an issue that is deeply rooted within our current culture. Hedwig, a person forced into assuming a specific gender, struggles with trying to figure out who she really is. She even refers to herself as the "new berlin wall" in the song Try and Tear Me Down, explaining how although she was able to escape a town that was divided, she still finds her identity divided between man and woman, self-love and self-hate. While Hedwig is able to feel comfortable dressed as a woman, she is unable to come to terms with what she looks like underneath all the makeup and wigs.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this film is that you do not need to know Hedwig's entire life story in order to understand how she is feeling. We never learn about when Sgt. Luther and Hedwig fell apart, but we don't need to. All we need to see is how she was manipulated by him, and how she was willing to do anything for him in order to feel "whole."
In many ways, this film is about love just as much as it is about self-discovery. Bring in "Origin of Love," for example, a song written by Stephen Trask and John Cameron Mitchell. In a 10-year anniversary interview for the film, JCM had said that he had always wanted to write a song about Plato's Symposium. While I will not be getting into specifics about a philosophical text written in 370 B.C., all you need to know (in less poetic terminology) is that Plato's Symposium is about a bunch of drunk philosophers, including Socrates and Aristophanes, sitting around and arguing about the definition of love. In Greek mythology, it is believed that at the beginning of time, humans were connected back-to-back. There were also three sexes: two men connected from the sun, two women connected from the Earth, and a woman and man connected from the moon. But Zeus had been growing angry at the sight of humanity and their inability to worship their god. He felt that humans were much too powerful when they were together and so he decided to punish every person on earth by splitting them in half. Definitely a more painful condemnation than just killing everyone. The rest of their lives became devoted to finding their other half so that they may become whole again. And that is the origin of love.
"Origin of Love" goes into depth about the concept of pain, how it is felt at the scene of separation, and how it is supposed to be shared with the one you love. Hedwig goes through a tremendous amount of pain throughout the course of the film. She is manipulated into undergoing a sex change, abandoned by her husband, and to top it off, she has all of her music stolen by her ex-lover and famous pop star, Tommy Gnosis. And if there is no one to share that pain with, then how can Hedwig be fully accepted for who she is. Perhaps the greatest pain is the fact that she can't even accept herself.
The biggest thing you should take away from Hedwig and the Angry Inch is that Hedwig represents someone who wants to be loved, but cannot fully love themselves. To her, being a woman meant being free. It wasn't until the film's conclusion that she was able to come to terms with the fact that she will never fully be a man, and she will never fully be a woman, but that does not mean she is incapable of love.
Hedwig truly is the metaphorical punk rocker that everybody needs in this word. So stop giving the god-awful film Cats the time of day and tune in to the Midnight Radio.