Tagged: Richard Lowenstein

Michael Hutchence: Mystify

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

Autoluminescent

A few days ago I bumped into an old friend in the city. He manages a well-known local band here in Brisbane, and he asked me if I’d be prepared to participate in the making of a documentary about the group. He wanted to do something a bit edgier than the standard rock doco, though. “Every documentary I’ve seen lately it’s just a bunch of people saying how great [band/performer X] was,” he said. “It’s really boring.”

He had a point, and I was reminded of it last night when I saw Autoluminescent, Lee-Maree Milburn and Richard Lowenstein’s documentary about former Birthday Party/These Immortal Souls guitarist Rowland S. Howard. The first half of this two-hour film is weighed down with luminaries (not only peers and former bandmates like Nick Cave, Mick Harvey and Phil Calvert but also Henry Rollins, Thurston Moore, Bobby Gillespie, etc, etc) generally crapping on about how great Rowland was.

And that’s validating, sure, but if you’re seeing this film in the first place you probably have some idea of who Rowland S. Howard is and why he mattered. Most likely you already think he’s fabulous. The film survives this slightly creaky beginning mainly due to the late guitarist’s outrageous charisma (with his high cheekbones and extraordinarily brilliant blue eyes, rarely has a dying man looked so beautiful) and the sumptuous direction. If Autoluminescent is sometimes in danger of getting bogged down in its own self-importance, at least it looks great.

The live footage of Howard in action, from all stages of his career, is a particular treat. Wim Wenders, who remembers their appearance in Berlin in 1984 as akin to the arrival of a flock of Siberian Crows, identifies the importance of his stage mannerisms: his peculiar stagger; like someone being constantly knocked off balance, yet remaining in control; wringing the neck of his guitar as he violently jerks it up and down, coaxing from it a blizzard of distortion through a constant, billowing haze of cigarette smoke. Howard was an incredibly distinctive player; as Cave observes, within two notes you always knew who was making that unearthly racket. (More than one of the aforementioned blowhard luminaries wonder if Howard had, in fact, landed from outer space.)

In fact Howard was just a dandy from Melbourne, and the second half of this film is so much more interesting and more moving than the first, as we dig deeper into his family history, his relationships with women and, of course, his declining health. It was never likely that Howard – who died of liver failure at the end of 2009 – would live to see this documentary finished. There are heartbreaking scenes of Howard in hospital towards the end, cradled by his last love, Bianca.

The clear respect Howard had for women (despite an on-off affair with Lydia Lunch while still with his long-time soulmate, Genevieve McGuckin) was repaid with enduring warmth and affection from his former partners. McGuckin, who provides some of the best insights and reminiscences, tears up when she recalls listening to Howard’s final album for the first time, Pop Crimes, only to have him suddenly call into her house and wrap her in his arms. “It was so important to him that I liked it,” she says.

After his long relationship with McGuckin ended in the mid-’90s, due mainly to Howard’s heroin habit – McGuckin was using too, but was ready to clean up before Howard, and resented the “shitty jobs” she had to do in order to get them enough money to score – the ailing guitarist met and married editor Jane Usher. It lasted a couple of years, Usher saying she tried everything to help her partner stay clean, only to find herself “getting into trouble” by the end, forcing her to divorce a man she clearly loved for the sake of her son, who had a close relationship with his stepfather.

Towards the end of the film, a ravaged Howard, who was battling Hep C, reflects on his struggle with addiction. “If you’d asked me five years ago I wouldn’t have said I regretted anything about drugs,” he says, but now all he can see is waste. He confides to McGuckin that he feels “A three-time loser.” By then, interest in his work was skyrocketing. It’s just so sad that he’s not around to see it.