The musical has developed a devoted cult following. Despite largely positive reviews from critics and audiences, the film was a box office bomb, grossing only $3.6 million from an estimated $6 million budget.
In 2001, the film won the Best Director and Audience Awards at the Sundance Film Festival as well as Best Directorial Debut from the National Board of Review, the Gotham Awards, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Mitchell received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor and the Premiere magazine Performance of the Year Award.
Hansel Schmidt is an East German "slip of a girly boy" who loves rock music, and is stuck in East Berlin until he meets Sergeant Luther Robinson, an American soldier. Luther proposes marriage to Hansel, this plan will allow Hansel to leave communist East Germany for the capitalist West. However, in order to be married, the couple must consist of a man and a woman and according to Luther, there will be "a full physical examination." Hansel's mother, Hedwig, gives her child her name and passport and finds a doctor to perform a sex change. The operation is botched, however, leaving Hansel – now Hedwig – with a dysfunctional one-inch mound of flesh between her legs, the eponymous "Angry Inch".
Hedwig goes to live in Junction City, Kansas as Luther's wife. On their first wedding anniversary, Luther leaves Hedwig for a man. That same day, it is announced that the Berlin Wall has fallen and East Germans are flooding freely into the West, meaning as material gains go, Hedwig's sacrifices have been for nothing. Hedwig recovers from the separation by picking up some "odd jobs" and returning to her "first love" of music by forming a rock band composed of Korean-born Army wives. Babysitting for "the commander of the nearby fort," she befriends Tommy Speck — a shy and misunderstood teenager questioning his Christian upbringing. For six months, she teaches him "rock history, lyrics, grooming, and vocal training" taking him from playing the occasional guitar masses to the two of them "out-grossing monster trucks in Wichita." Hedwig gives him the stage name "Tommy Gnosis" (stating that Gnosis is the Greek word for "knowledge") for his graduation. Feeling her "inch," Tommy leaves her and goes on to become a wildly successful rock star by stealing the songs Hedwig wrote alone and with him during the time they collaborated.
The "internationally ignored" Hedwig and her band, the Angry Inch (now composed of Eastern Europeans including her husband, Yitzhak), are forced to support themselves by playing in a chain of failing seafood restaurants called Bilgewater's and other small venues. Hedwig is following Tommy's tour while pursuing a copyright lawsuit. In between songs, she reflects on her life story through flashbacks and stories told directly to either disinterested restaurant patrons or her small, but loyal group of fans.
Throughout the film, Hedwig refers to Aristophanes' speech in Plato's Symposium. This myth, retold by Hedwig in the song "The Origin of Love", explains that human beings were once round, two-faced, four-armed, and four-legged beings. Angry gods split these early humans in two, leaving the separated people with a lifelong yearning for their other half.
Near the end of the film, Hedwig is down and out, her band and her manager having abandoned her in disgust after she tears up Yitzhak's passport. While working as a streetwalker, she finally reunites with Tommy and they reconcile. After the two of them accidentally drive Tommy's limo into a News truck, paparazzi burst onto the scene, Hedwig becomes famous and Gnosis' popularity tanks. Reunited with her band, Hedwig performs at Times Square Bilgewater's culminating in a violent removal of her drag.
Entering the final chapter of the film, it seems to take place in a non-real space, perhaps Hedwig's mind. Now in male form, Hedwig discovers herself alone in front of Tommy on a huge stage. He sings to her, pleading forgiveness and saying goodbye; she realizes that she created her "other half" from within herself. Hedwig then finds herself back at Times Square Bilgewater's, but the space seems transformed, with ambient white lighting. The band members, dressed all in white, are already in their places on stage. Hedwig gives Yitzhak her blonde wig and sings a song of triumph and solidarity with "all the misfits and losers" of the world. A brief animated sequence symbolizing the union of the separated Platonic halves leads to the final shot: Hedwig walking naked down a dark alley and into the street.John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig Robinson/Hansel Schmidt
Ben Mayer-Goodman as young Hansel
Miriam Shor as Yitzhak
Stephen Trask as Skszp
Andrea Martin as Phyllis Stein, Hedwig's manager
Michael Pitt as Tommy Speck/Tommy Gnosis
Theodore Liscinski as Jacek
Rob Campbell as Krzysztof
Michael Aronov as Schlatko
Alberta Watson as Hedwig Schmidt, Hansel's mother
Maurits Niggebrugge as Hansel's father
Sook-Yin Lee as Kwahng-Yi
Maurice Dean Wint as Sergeant Luther Robinson
Rosie O'Donnell as herself
Dar Williams as singer on main stage
Karen Hines as Tommy's publicist
Songs only on the soundtrack
- "Tear Me Down"
- "Random Number Generation" (excerpt only)
- "Tear Me Down" (Tommy Gnosis version) (excerpt only)
- "The Origin of Love"
- "Sugar Daddy"
- "Angry Inch"
- "Wig in a Box"
- "The Origin of Love" (Tommy Gnosis version) (excerpt only)
- "Wicked Little Town"
- "I Will Always Love You" (excerpt only)
- "The Long Grift" (excerpt only, full version on soundtrack)
- "Freaks" (excerpt only, full version on soundtrack, with Girls Against Boys)
- "In Your Arms Tonight"
- "Hedwig's Lament"
- "Exquisite Corpse"
- "Wicked Little Town (Reprise)"
- "Midnight Radio"
- "Nailed" (on soundtrack only)
For the soundtrack, Hedwig's songs were recorded by John Cameron Mitchell (lead vocals), Stephen Trask, Miriam Shor, Bob Mould (of Hüsker Dü), Ted Liscinski, Perry L. James, Alexis Fleisig, and Eli Janney.
Tommy Gnosis' songs were recorded by Trask (lead vocals), Shor, Mould, Liscinski, James, Scott McCloud, Janney, Fleisig, and Johnny Temple.
In 2003, a CD of the film's song covers by such artists as Yoko Ono and Cyndi Lauper was released. It benefited the Hetrick-Martin Institute and was named after one of the musical's most popular songs "Wig in a Box". A cover of "Angry Inch" appeared on 2003's Life Is Killing Me album by goth-metal group Type O Negative.
Mitchell had been approached during the Off-Broadway run of the musical with the offer to adapt Hedwig into a film. He developed parts of the script at the Sundance film labs, notably the trailer scene with Tommy Speck. Later, the film was entered into the Sundance Film Festival.
According to the DVD commentary, most of the lead vocals were recorded "live" as the scenes were shot, to capture the intensity of a live performance. The live recording of "Hedwig's Lament" is the version on the film soundtrack despite most of the songs being studio recorded for the album.
Mitchell had to shave constantly during the course of the film shoot, often using an electric razor between shots while still in full makeup. Also in the DVD commentary, Mitchell mentions that Pitt was somewhat uncomfortable with their prolonged kissing scene, complaining about being scratched by Mitchell's stubble. Mitchell mentioned Pitt consuming onion and garlic directly before shooting the scene.
Mitchell and Trask performed twice on The Rosie O'Donnell Show (the second time with Dean DeLeo of Stone Temple Pilots). At first, the studio objected to a "drag" performance on the daytime family show, but relented at the insistence of O'Donnell. Mitchell and his band performed "The Origin of Love". A clip from this show was used in the Hedwig film, with O'Donnell's blessing.
Mitchell said that his performance on the Late Show with David Letterman as Hedwig was interesting: "During rehearsal, a disembodied voice emanating from the control booth gently told me that I couldn't rip my wig off during the song ("Tear Me Down"). I asked why, but there was only silence from on high. So when we taped, I ripped it off after the song. They edited it out. I think they wanted people to think I was a woman and not a man in drag."
Hedwig received generally positive reviews; review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a 92% 'Fresh' rating; the consensus states: "Hedwig and the Angry Inch may very well be the next Rocky Horror midnight movie. It not only knows how to rock, but Hedwig's story has an emotional poignancy."
Kevin Maynard from Mr. Showbiz wrote "Stomps the summer movie competition with heart and humour." Ed Epstein from The Wall Street Journal commented "This extraordinary flight from the humdrum is not to be missed." Chris Kaltenbach from The Baltimore Sun wrote "This is Mitchell's show, and his performance lives up to his triple billing as writer, director and star."
The film earned an initial domestic theatrical total of $3,644,200 from a $6 million budget. The film opened in the U.S. in 9 theaters on July 20, 2001 and made $156,724 in its opening weekend, ranking #28 in the box office. Subsequent DVD and cable revenue along with international profits eventually put the film firmly in the black.
The film was released on DVD on December 11, 2001, complete with deleted scenes, an audio commentary by Mitchell and Director of Photography Frank DeMarco, a full-length documentary "Whether You Like It Or Not: The Story of Hedwig," and the original theatrical trailer.
The deleted scenes mostly expand on the characters around Hedwig; we learn more about Yitzhak (he was once a drag queen called "Krystal Nacht", a pun on Kristallnacht), how he met Hedwig in a Croatian drag bar, and we see his preparing to audition for the role of Angel in Rent. We also learn that Hedwig's manager, Phyllis, has a cell phone surgically implanted in a tooth. When she gets hit in the head with a dryer door, she is unable to hang up her phone. Krzyzhtoff, whom Hedwig has just yelled at for putting her bra in the dryer, attempts to help Phyllis by pressing on her tooth.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2006: AFI's Greatest Movie Musicals – Nominated