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The cult film Hedwig and the Angry Inch was released 20 years ago. Leila Latif explores the enduring revolutionary power of an unlikely love story.

Like watching the Moon landing or the moment they locked eyes with the person they love, people remember where they were the first time they saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The queer punk-rock musical about Plato, the Berlin Wall, love, gender, fame and self-acceptance started first as a stage show before becoming a much-loved cult film with a fervent fandom of «Hedheads» that unwaveringly adore it. Twenty years since the movie was released and 27 since John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask first debuted the character at New York nightclub Squeeze Box, Hedwig has been a constant presence, being screened and performed all over the world.

The story centres on Hedwig, a singer in a punk-rock band from East Berlin now living in Kansas following botched gender reassignment surgery that left them with an «angry inch». Hedwig has their heart broken twice, first by the GI who coerced them into the operation to allow them to marry and emigrate, and then by Tommy Gnosis, who fell in love with Hedwig but then stole their songs and used them to become the rock star Hedwig always wanted to be. It’s a tale that many have a deep connection to, not just because it’s hilarious, heart-breaking and has a phenomenal, timelessly cool, soundtrack but also because it taps into the fundamental question of identity and how it’s shaped by the relationships we have.

Stephen Trask, co-creator, composer and lyricist of Hedwig, has seen that intense connection first-hand during theatrical performances, telling BBC Culture, «From the stage we would see couples break up and other people would come and get engaged. People would make life choices watching the show». For Trask that’s evidence that Hedwig’s enduring appeal is in its universal themes. «There’s a lot of soul searching that Hedwig does about looking for a romantic partner and trying to find wholeness and be recognised for their music and their creativity; it’s not just a gender journey. John and I were very much talking honestly about our own journeys and expressing them through this character that in many ways, most of our audience didn’t have a lot in common with. But the story is so human and fundamental that people can figure out by watching if they are on the wrong path or the right path.»

For Anna Bogutskaya, film programmer, broadcaster, writer and proud owner of a Hedwig tattoo, it spoke to her most as a love story. «I thought it was incredibly romantic. I thought of it always as a love story, of heartbreak and really intense true love. I have revisited [the film] constantly because it feels to me more romantic and has more to say about love than films that were sold to me as love stories. It’s a film that I weirdly haven’t shared with many people, it feels extremely intimate to me.» That intimacy extends both ways, with Trask feeling closely bonded to the fandom: «Whenever I meet a fan, I think, ‘oh, that person could be my friend in real life’. And I have developed friends who started off as fans and John has the same experience.» The fandom extends outside of the LGBT+ community or punk rock fans to people from all walks of life. «Recently, a young woman came backstage and told me about her mother, a refugee from El Salvador who in the early 80s trudged through all of Central America on her own to come to the United States illegally. She lived secretly and got herself a teacher certificate, becoming a high school teacher. [The Hedwig] song that gave her strength was Wig in a Box and she would say: ‘I am Hedwig’.»

The path to creating Hedwig began with, of all things, a biography of a New German Cinema icon. Hedwig’s co-creator, original star and director of the film John Cameron Mitchell tells BBC Culture, «I wanted to write a musical that was rock and roll with a punk edge, I’d seen a lot of so-called rock musicals that didn’t feel authentic and I knew that the myth of the origin of love from Plato would be the central metaphor. I had a few characters I was thinking about and I met Stephen Trask on a plane. Stephen was probably coming on to me and moved to one seat away and plopped a Rainer Werner Fassbinder biography on the seat between us. It’s probably never happened before or since that Fassbinder was an ice-breaker.»

After going to see each other’s work, a creative partnership was formed and the characters began to emerge. «I would tell Stephen stories about my life. One of them was about a babysitter I had, Helga, a German army wife who I realised in retrospect was also a prostitute. She became the seed of Hedwig and Tommy came from me as the son of a general. Stephen was the house band leader at Squeezebox so drag queens would do punk-rock covers with him. That’s where I did my first gig – because it was a drag club, I had to do the female character, Helga, who became Hedwig.»

Once the story had been formed and the songs and lyrics written, the path to success for Hedwig and the Angry Inch was not an easy one and, much like the character, Mitchell and Trask struggled to find an audience, performing it in tiny venues or in the early hours of the morning. Even when, with the help of director Peter Askin, Hedwig made it to off-Broadway, the audience didn’t immediately find them. «People stayed away in droves,» Mitchell laughs. «We often had very silent audiences, but it wasn’t until people who didn’t like musicals started coming, and celebrities like Glenn Close, Patti LuPone, Marilyn Manson, Barry Manilow, Lou Reed and David Bowie started coming, it became the thing to see. Even though we were never a big hit, we became the hip thing. Then there was a bidding war for the movie, which was shocking to us. New Line [who ended up producing it] was one of the few companies run by one person, Bob Shaye; he was getting ready to do Lord of the Rings and allowed me to make the film the way I wanted.»

One of the most impressive things about the film they would go on to create is how, as Bogutskaya puts it, «the film uses cinematic language quite uniquely and uses the medium that it’s in to its full extent. It’s not just trying to film the show or replicate it.» The film creates a larger landscape to explore Hedwig’s journey but also recreates the atmosphere of its early days as an electrifying live performance. It premiered at Sundance in 2001 to a rapturous reception, winning a prize for Best Director and the much-coveted Audience Award.

But, amazingly, it was while the Hedwig team were still at Sundance that things started to go wrong for the film. «We were in a weird spot because there was a changing of the guard at New Line while we were at Sundance. All of our producers were fired.» Trask remembers. «We were walking down the street at Sundance when our producer got a phone call from the new head of production who said, ‘Hey, I just want to congratulate you on having this big success with Hedwig. I still need to tell you that, despite that, if I had been in charge then like I am now, this movie would not have been made and you’re fired’ – she was literally fired while walking down the street with us. The new people in charge actively hated the movie so we had to depend entirely on free publicity, which meant getting into every film festival possible. We did dozens, if not a hundred, film festivals and we were huge hits at all of them – but by the time it came out, we had been at so many film festivals that tens of thousands of people had already seen it. And then when we were getting ready to do our expansion, very sadly, September 11th happened and everyone stopped going to the [cinema].»

So, despite awards and critical acclaim (Hedwig currently has a rating of 92% on Rotten Tomatoes), Hedwig was declared a flop. And it was not until the DVD release that its audience began to grow. Hedwig DVDs were passed around friend groups, watched on date nights and played at parties. Much like in its original theatrical incarnation, word of mouth and its intriguing hipness brought Hedwig to a whole new group of people who would then attend singalong screenings in Hedwig’s signature giant blonde wigs.

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