Ego: The Michael Gudinski Story

At first, all is darkness. There is a hiss of cymbals, followed by a rude bang, thump and wallop. The lights go up. We see the late Australian music mogul Michael Gudinski, sitting at a drum kit, pounding the skins arrhythmically with his hands, making a point at his default setting: maximum volume.

“Well, you can obviously see I can’t play any music,” the Mushroom Records founder bawls in that sandpaper and gravel voice, familiar and weirdly soothing. “And that’s why I’m good at the music business. Because I don’t wanna be a pop or rock star, but HELL, I LIKE WORKING WITH THEM!” He rubs his hands together, ready to deal.

If we believe the galaxy of stars lining up to pay homage in Ego: The Michael Gudinski Story – now in Australian cinemas – Gudinski was bigger than all of them. Australian artists whose careers Gudinski nurtured, including Kylie Minogue, Jimmy Barnes and Paul Kelly, are joined by international heavy-hitters Bruce Springsteen, Ed Sheeran, Billy Joel, Sting and the obligatory Dave Grohl.

They paint a picture of the ultimate music fan, tirelessly enthusiastic, driven by art ahead of commerce. But Gudinski was a ruthless businessman first. Ego tells the story of how, over a boozy lunch in 1975, five men stitched up the Melbourne music business via the formation of booking agency Premier Artists, and later the promotions juggernaut Frontier Touring.

They were the original Melbourne music mafia. “We wouldn’t go to war where we were shooting each other’s cars up or blowing up their backyard or anything, but it was competitive,” Frontier’s Frank Stivala says. “If there was ever any competition in Melbourne, Michael would effectively wipe it out,” adds co-founder Michael Chugg.

If Ego is anything to go by, Gudinski’s control extends to the afterlife. Here we have Mushroom Studios presenting the story of Mushroom Records’ beloved founder, executive produced by son and heir Matt Gudinski, CEO of Mushroom Group.

Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that Ego quickly trips into hagiography. If it hadn’t, it might not have been able to license the veritable soundtrack of Australian life that underpins it, from the synth-rock pulse of Models’ I Hear Motion to the shimmer of the Church’s Under The Milky Way, which poignantly signals Gudinski’s departure from this mortal coil.

Sometimes, his radar was off: missing Men At Work in the early 1980s denied Mushroom the American breakthrough Gudinski craved, and when alternative music went mainstream in the ’90s, he was left playing catch-up. But Gudinski’s deep commitment to First Nations artists Archie Roach and Yothu Yindi proved that Mushroom was more than just a hit factory.

Of course, it was Australian glam-rock icons Skyhooks who put Mushroom on the map and whose song Ego Is Not A Dirty Word lent this film its title. Gudinski was a legendary promoter, but he was an even better self-promoter. In a film featuring some of the biggest names in music, his is by far the loudest and most frequently heard voice.

That can be tiring, since, as Sting observes, “you could only ever understand half of what he ever said”. Kylie puts it another way: “You have to be able to speak Gudinski.” For anyone unfamiliar with the idiom, that might be a bit of a problem over Ego’s 105-minute length. Still, he’s persuasive: “The bloke had his own gravitational pull,” says Ed Sheeran.

At Gudinski’s core was neediness. The Australian-born son of Lithuanian war immigrants – an older sister had been killed by the Nazis – he was kicked out of home by his father, who viewed his son’s pursuit of show business with contempt. Ego suggests that this motivated not only a yearning for approval, but a compulsion to bring people together in ever-larger gatherings.

The music business has always been full of hucksters and self-aggrandisers. Ego wants you to know that Gudinski was one of the good ones, whose loyalty to artists is repaid by their sincere testimonials. “He was playing the part he wrote for himself,” says Springsteen manager Jon Landau. In Ego, he’s all but scripted his own epitaph.

First published in the Guardian, 31 August 2023

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