Hedwig and the Angry Inch
With this trailblazing musical, writer-director-star John Cameron Mitchell and composer-lyricist Stephen Trask brought their signature creation from stage to screen for a movie as unclassifiable as its protagonist. Raised a boy in East Berlin, Hedwig (Mitchell) undergoes a traumatic personal transformation in order to emigrate to the U.S., where she reinvents herself as an “internationally ignored” but divinely talented rock diva, characterized by Mitchell as a “beautiful gender of one.” The film tells Hedwig’s life story through her music, an eclectic collection of original punk anthems and power ballads by Trask, matching them with a freewheeling cinematic mosaic of music-video fantasies, animated interludes, and moments of bracing emotional realism. A hard-charging song cycle and a tender character study, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a tribute to the transcendent power of rock and roll.
The Criterion Collection presents John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Blu-ray, their new edition sporting a high-definition 1080p/24hz presentation taken from a brand-spanking-new 4K restoration, sourced from the 35mm original camera negative and a 35mm interpositive. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1.
Hedwig is a “newer” film from a major studio, so there shouldn’t be any concerns about preservation and restoration really, but man, what a difference a 4K restoration can make! The New Line DVD wasn’t/isn’t shabby in any way (for the format), the colours being impressive all on their own, and the image is sharp (and upscaled, for an older disc, it doesn’t look too, too bad). But the Blu-ray offers a far more film-like, far more colourful looking image. The film is loaded with reds, pinks, oranges, purples and they’re just beyond stunning here, coming off more vibrant with more distinct shades. The blue filters over the Berlin flashbacks also get a bit of a boost but I thought they looked cleaner and purer. Black levels are wonderful, rich and deep without any crushing, and shadow detail is superb.
But what just absolutely blew me away was the overall sharpness and clarity of the image. Most of the film displays an incredible amount of detail, from the various settings to the intricate costumes and the heavy make-up (and yet, despite all of Hedwig’s concealer, you can make out pores). The handling of the film’s grain (which can get very heavy on occasion) is another highlight, with it looking natural and clean, never noisy or blocky. The image goes a little softer and fuzzier during the “Wig in a Box” sing-along portion (with the animated wig jumping across the on-screen lyrics), and this is probably the section of the film sourced from an interpositive, but outside of that (and moments around some of the film’s burned-in subtitles) the image is razor sharp. Yes, it’s a more recent film, but I was still stunned at just how amazing this ended up looking.
The film is an energetic musical and the DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround presentation does not disappoint! The musical moments are where the track shines most, the mix pushing the music out through the five speakers with crystal clarity, impressive direction, and incredible range. Bass through the lower channel also sounds great, never overbearing. The rest of the film (outside of these musical moments) also manages to impress. Dialogue is sharp and clear itself, but the sound design also likes to throw in plenty of playful sound effects that can make their way through the environment. Movement between the speakers sounds natural, and dialogue is never drowned out. It’s an impressive, dynamic, and fun mix and the disc delivers it beautifully.
New Line previously released the film on DVD through their Platinum Series line and it was a highly regarded release at the time. Criterion has put together their own special edition that first ports over most everything from New Line’s DVD, and then adds on a good amount of new material. Things start off with the audio commentary recorded for the original DVD edition, featuring director John Cameron Mitchell and director of photography Frank DeMarco. I was surprised how technical the track ended up being, with a lot of discussion on the decision process that went into everything from what kind of film should be used to how they pulled off some of the more complicated shots. But there is also some discussion on the original off-Broadway production and adapting it for the screen, the film’s music and its influences, and general stories about shooting in and around Toronto. And I can’t say I’m too surprised that a lot of Canadians recognized Andrea Martin during the shoot (she’s a national treasure). It’s a great commentary track, very engaging and non-stop with the details.
Exclusive to this edition is a new discussion between the cast and crew of the film, A “Hedwig” Reunion, featuring Mitchell and DeMarco, along with composer and lyricist Stephen Trask, hairstylist and make-up artist Mike Potter, animator Emily Hubley, actor Miriam Shor, and visual consultant Miguel Villalobos. Filmed at the Jane Hotel (where the original off-Broadway Hedwig was performed) the seven sit and just talk about that journey from the original production all the way through to getting the film made and released. The details about the behind-the-scenes work that went into making the film are all wonderful but what I ended up being most appreciative of was the discussion about the original show (with what looks like home video excerpts of some performances edited in) and the life that took on, making its way around the world. It’s a very brisk 56-minutes, loaded with fun little details absent from other areas of the supplements (like learning that Mitchell’s eyebrows, which were shaved off for the film, still haven’t grown back properly).
Trask then shows up again in a new 29-minute interview with music critic David Fricke, who had been able to see one of the original performances. Trask talked a little about the music in the film in the reunion piece, but the music comes front-and-center here as Trask and Fricke talk about the influences behind the music and the process that went into writing the songs and getting input from Mitchell. I was surprised to learn that it was originally planned that a German version of “You Light Up My Life” was supposed to conclude the film, but Joe Brookes objected, so that led to another song being written. The influences and process behind writing the film’s music mentioned throughout some of the other material (and I guess even in the film itself) but it’s great getting a feature focused specifically on this aspect of Hedwig and it’s a very passionate discussion between the two. It runs 29-minutes.
Also taken from the New Line DVD is the 85-minute making-of documentary Whether You Like it or Not, which covers Hedwig and the Angry Inch from its first performance through its off-Broadway days and the eventual screening of the film at Cannes, along with how the musical has made its way around the world (even covering the various performers who have played Hedwig). For something that appeared on a studio DVD it’s a shockingly good making-of, not at all the fluff piece I would have expected initially. It really gets into the details of the production, including the planning and test work. But the most worthwhile aspect is its coverage of the stage version(s), with the bonus of there being a lot of home video footage from these performances. It was probably the highlight on the DVD and it is still a highlight here.
Criterion then gathers together three more interviews under From the Archives, presented as three separate segments featuring director Mitchell, make-up artist Potter, and costume designer Arianne Phillips. Both Mitchell’s and Phillips’ segments run 18-minutes, while Potter’s runs 11. Potter’s is pretty funny in that it’s kind of shocking how he stores wigs from the film (he apparently just keeps them in a garbage bag so it’s a bit of a shame to see one that hasn’t held up well). Mitchell’s is fascinating as he digs through boxes of materials around both the off-Broadway show and the film (from posters and photos to reviews and more), while offering a few surprises (I had no idea he did the voice of the cartoon kangaroo in the Dunakroos commercials). The best segment belongs to Phillips as she goes over the costumes. Designing costumes for the film was obviously a very important and defining period for her and this comes out in her discussion, explaining how she had left the big budget Charlie’s Angels to then get hired for the film version of Hedwig (and she interestingly was able to take some of the work she had designed for the other film). She still has some of the costumes and she shows them off here, explaining the influences behind them and how the whole experience helped her grow personally. The section overall is great (and is a blast to go through) but Phillips’ contribution is the stand-out.
Criterion then digs up an episode from the Sundance Channel program Anatomy of a Scene, focusing around the scene where Hedwig tells the future Tommy Gnosis. Not surprisingly a lot of thought and planning had to go into making the show work for film and here we get a sample of how this was all worked out. We get footage from a “Sundance Filmmakers Lab” where we see Mitchell work out how the scene will be placed and how the camera will be used, followed by the planning for the music, costumes, and more. In a film that takes pleasure in its flights-of-fancy and loaded with a lot of creative and impressive visuals it’s probably one of the least interesting scenes to study but even though it’s covered a little in the lengthy documentary on this disc, getting footage documenting the planning behind the film is a nice bonus.
Criterion also carries over the deleted scenes from the DVD and present them in a similar manner, though it looks like further restoration has been done. Running 12-minutes most of the deleted scenes revolve around Andrea Martin’s character having a phone installed on her head (or something, I don’t know if I entirely understand it) and they’ve been re-edited into the scenes that did make it into the film to help offer context. There are then a couple of other fully deleted sequences, including a rather funny one where Hedwig tries to get closer to Gnosis. There is also an optional commentary featuring Mitchell and DeMarco who explain a little about why the scenes were cut, though also share other stories around them. In the main commentary the two mention that the opening of the film had been more elaborate (which was reduced down to Hedwig simply walking through an alley to a backdoor) but that’s still missing here.
The disc then closes with the film’s original theatrical trailer and Criterion includes a booklet with the release. On top of all of the photos, artwork and designs that appear throughout the 52-pages’ worth of material, there’s a lengthy essay on the film, its history, and relevance today, written by critic Stephanie Zacharek (covering the academic angle that was otherwise missing on this release), followed by text from Plato’s Symposium and The Gospel of Thomas, both of which influenced the story. It’s a wonderful looking booklet, lovingly put together.
And that can be said for the supplements overall. The supplements really do cover about every aspect of the film, and all of its participants are clearly passionate about it, which all ends up being rather infectious.
A hell of an edition for the film, topping New Line’s already impressive DVD edition from 18 years ago. On top of the engaging and thorough supplements the release just seals it with a gorgeous and colourful 4K restoration that impressively makes the film feel more alive than it already does.