Oscar History

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Retro Sundance: 2001's Hedwig and the Angry Inch

2001 was the comeback year for the musical. As the massively-scaled Moulin Rouge was reinventing the genre for the post MTV era, John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch was an unassuming small scale success that didn't disappoint its cult following from its Off Broadway run and the cult grew rapidly after its Sundance debut. Still a genre anomaly for Sundance, this musical was awarded the Audience Award (Dramatic) and Mitchell won Best Director for his first time behind the camera.

The dramatic Audience Award winners are typically optimistic, but rarely this uniting - Hedwig is a musical that reflects our deepest human needs. Nothing brings together a crowd of strangers like music (or film) we can all connect to and Hedwig's score is packed with emotional insight. Composer Stephen Trask fills the songs with rage, wit, and a hard-won optimism that burns through whatever baggage we as an audience bring to the table. [More...]

We may not relate to Hedwig's particulars, but how could anyone listen to "The Origin of Love" and not feel their own desire to be accepted and understood? Captured in tight, soul-plunging closeup, we're staring into ourselves as we stare at the heroine in the very moment that we fall in love with her.

Mitchell's reprisal of the role he wrote and originated off-Broadway continually gets the praise and fandom, but the directing prize Sundance awarded him is quite astute in retrospect. One could argue that his body and soul understanding of his character simply translates to his visual language in telling her story, but Hedwig is quite the bold, smart debut feature. His gaze is as witty as the script, with repeated visual references resonating throughout. The use of animation is inspired, a stylistic choice now replicated by the like of Juno and The Diary of a Teenage Girl. His humanistic and confident approach has been underappreciated similarly in his follow-ups Shortbus and Rabbit Hole.

To have a triumphant trans story celebrated before our current era of growing visibility also feels miraculous. As trans representation has also grown, the Neil Patrick Harris-led Broadway incarnation helped Hedwig and the Angry Inch become a slightly more mainstream fascination. But naturally Mitchell will be the forever gold standard for the role.

The film remains impressive for his all-in creative contribution and his sharp directorial intuitions on his first feature - for a genre that was thought at the time to be all but dead, no less! In a time where we've had such intimate musicals like Next to Normal and Fun Home, hopefully we can see independent cinema - and Sundance - be gifted with a musical as ingenious as this in the near future.

"Okay, everybody..."


Previously on Retro Sundance
Desert Hearts (86), Brave Little Toaster (88), Longtime Companion (90), Poison (91), Run Lola Run (99), You Can Count on Me (00), Memento (01), Hedwig and the Angry Inch (01) 

Current Sundance
Birth of a Nation, Tallulah, Manchester by the Sea and Christine, Indignation, Certain Women


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Reader Comments (6)

Hedwig is one of the best stage-to-screen adaptations ever to be produced, due to Mitchell's understanding that film is an entirely different medium than stage. Rather than plopping the show- which is essentially just an unusually personal concert- as-is onto the screen, he makes really smart adaptational choices while never losing what makes the stage show work. It's a remarkable feat, considering how the stage show would appear to be totally resistant to translation to film. But Mitchell gets it. Hedwig the movie is different from Hedwig the stage show, but like the eponymous protagonist, they find completion within themselves.

January 28, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAustin

I love this movie. One of my all-time favorites.

January 28, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCoco

austin -- 100%. I couldn't believe it when i first saw this film because i had been such a huge fan of the Off broadway production. saw it 3 times which is a lot for me with theater. and i'm so glad Mitchell's subsequent career has proved that he thinks cinematically.

wish he'd make films more often though.

January 28, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Since Mitchell's responsible for Kidman's elusive third Oscar nomination, does anyone sense she'll be able to gain traction again for her supporting work in his new movie? I envision a Supporting Actress lineup half filled with previous Best Actress winners (Kidman for the Mitchell movie / Bates and Sarandon for the Xavier Dolan vehicle).

January 28, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

"...half filled..."

Already anticipating the change to six nominees? ;-)

January 28, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Easily one of the best musicals I had ever seen as it's also fucking rocking. I love the "Angry Inch" song as I just love that part where Hedwig says "I got a motherfucking angry inch".

January 28, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

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