If the X factor is that indefinable charisma that gives a performer star power, the late Michael Hutchence had it in abundance. On stage, the INXS singer took moves from Jagger, Jim Morrison and Iggy Pop and transformed into a serpentine, almost supernatural presence. In Mystify, a new documentary by his longtime collaborator Richard Lowenstein, he fills the screen, but slides in and out of focus, as though untouchable.
Which, in death, he is. It’s now 22 years since Hutchence took his own life in a Sydney hotel room. Lowenstein says his film is an apology, of sorts, that he wasn’t there for his friend. When the surviving members of INXS saw his film, Lowenstein tells Guardian Australia, he saw “all these people still incredibly damaged, not by the ups and downs of being in a band with Michael Hutchence, but the damage done by his departure. He’s left this huge hole in everyone.”
Mystify is not a standard rock documentary. There are no talking heads, and there’s no narrator. Instead, Lowenstein relies entirely on archival footage – much of it shot by the singer himself, or by his intimate partners, including Kylie Minogue – with his story told as an off-camera oral history by associates, lovers, and mother figures, in particular INXS’s manager in the US, Martha Troup.
The result is a far more intimate, close-up portrait of a complex man who, by the end, had been reduced to an unbecoming tabloid caricature. An assault in 1992 had left him with an acquired brain injury that severed his olfactory nerve, leaving the sensual, hedonistic Hutchence with no sense of smell or taste. The coroner’s report – acquired by Lowenstein “by nefarious means” – reported two walnut-sized lesions on his frontal lobe.
According to a neurologist Lowenstein consulted for the film, that traumatic injury alone put Hutchence in the highest risk category for suicide. At the time of his death, Hutchence hadn’t slept for between 36 and 48 hours, had a large quantity of alcohol in his system, and was locked in a bitter custody dispute with Bob Geldof for his daughter with Paula Yates, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily (known as Tiger).
It was a perfect storm. “His ability to navigate cognitive and emotional dilemmas was severely impaired,” Lowenstein says. Band members and Hutchence’s partner between 1991 and 1995, Helena Christensen, report the change that came over the formerly gentle singer after the accident: he became erratic and sometimes aggressive, and INXS lost their way as their singer lost his.
Lowenstein first met Hutchence in 1984, filming the video clip for Burn For You, the third single from their breakthrough album The Swing. Over the course of the next 13 years, he got to know him “fairly well, on the level that any Australian male knows another Australian male”. Once asked who his best friend was, Hutchence replied “I think Richard is, but I don’t think he knows it,” and Lowenstein says “that encapsulated us”.
Hutchence confided more in the women in his life, and Mystify leans on their accounts (and home videos) to get a glimpse of the private person. Off stage, he comes across as needy: he could be the life of the party, a prankster who had to be the centre of attention. “He felt he had to entertain you,” Lowenstein says, and while the men around Hutchence had the rock-star war stories, Lowenstein avoided them. It’s the footage featuring Minogue, Hutchence’s partner between 1989 and 1991 – home video and stills shot by the pair in Hong Kong, on the Orient Express, and in various hotel rooms – that provide Mystify with some of its most touching, whimsical moments.
The other key woman Lowenstein connected with was Tiger, just 16 months old at the time of her father’s death. Now 22, Tiger provided the key to licensing a selection of INXS’s songs for the film. Up to that point, the band had withheld permission, leaving Lowenstein with only the music of Max Q, Hutchence’s collaboration from 1989 with Ollie Olsen, and an underscore by Warren Ellis.
Lowenstein met Hutchence’s daughter at a cafe in London. He had his laptop, with the film on it, and Tiger suggested they adjourn to her flat to watch it. “We watched it in her share-house flat, which funnily enough reminded me of a scene from Dogs In Space [Lowenstein’s 1986 film featuring Hutchence]. She was living with some friends, and she wasn’t by any means a rich kid.
“She watched it, she liked it and was quite emotionally affected by it, and said, ‘Well, you obviously loved my dad and you need his music, what do you want me to do?’” Lowenstein dissuaded Tiger from writing an open letter to The Guardian in support of his cause; instead she composed an email to the band. Within 24 hours, Lowenstein had permission to use nine songs, giving the film its musical backbone.
The presence of the music, and concert footage, allows Hutchence to shape-shift before our eyes on screen, as we watch him transform from a vulnerable man, who hated being alone, to the lounge lizard rock star who commanded stadiums of up to a hundred thousand people at a time, and back again. But it was in that hotel room in Double Bay that, on 22 November 1997, he found himself alone, at his wit’s end.
“If Michael had gotten through that moment – if he could see the pleasures in life and the love of his daughter, whatever the troubles that were there – half an hour, an hour later, he would have made a totally different decision,” Lowenstein says. Still, there is doubt. “I don’t think anyone really knew what was going on in Michael’s head. He was a performer, and what he was showing his friends, especially his male friends, was a performance.”
But even for Lowenstein, occasionally, the mask dropped. “He identified with the quiet types,” he says. “You’d be sitting in the corner while the classic rock’n’roll party was going on, and you’d just find that he would just come and quietly sit next to you.”
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First published in The Guardian, 30 June 2019