Richard Lowenstein's excellent documentary captures his subject’s essence by never quite bringing the man into focus.
Michael Hutchence, 1991. Photo credit: Andrew de Groot.
A good biography gives you the facts; a great one gives them a life. Richard Lowenstein’s look at the INXS frontman and 80s icon Michael Hutchence captures his subject’s essence by never quite bringing the man into focus, keeping him slightly distant in a way that feels true to how we really know people. It’s a method that adds to the air of tragedy that hangs over the film as the Hutchence on screen – the charmingly sweet man who took his art more seriously than he took himself – slips away years before his suicide in 1997.
Lowenstein was a collaborator and confidante of INXS throughout the 80s, working on music videos and having Hutchence appear in his debut feature, Dogs in Space. Told entirely through montage and voice-over from interview subjects, this would be a visual feast even in the hands of a lesser director; Hutchence was big on taking home movies from the very start of his fame, and so a lot of the visuals here are reflections of his interests, the moments that caught his eye.
While Lowenstein largely works chronologically, at times he structures his film like we’re meeting Hutchence and getting to know him like we would any acquaintance. First we get a sketch establishing the early fame, then going deeper to fill in the gaps with his family and upbringing, having him meet the Farris brothers who’d form INXS, getting to know his first real girlfriend – and then things really take off.
It’s the earlier, pre-fame material that’s the most insightful. Hutchence’s childhood was a bit of a mess, with parents a little too fond of the fast life to give their blended family a stable upbringing. Hutchence’s much older step-sister was close to a surrogate mother; his younger brother was abandoned at an airport when their mother took Michael with her overseas for eighteen months. But Michael grew up to be a thoughtful man, a devastatingly handsome romantic who took his partners seriously, wanted the best for his broken family and never quite seemed to realise just how good a singer he was.
The one thing this lacks is rock’n roll excess. Hutchence is shown as a committed serial monogamist with friends and partners who speak highly of him to this day, while INXS seemingly stayed focused on touring hard and hanging onto their money. Hutchence says at one point the secret to his stage success was his short-sightedness (the crowds were just a blur) but for a band that largely kept their heads down off stage, onstage seems to have been where it all came together for them, the place where they came alive.
Mystify suggests INXS’s decline in the 90s was just a rough patch, which seems a tad generous. They were massive in the 80s in a way that was always going to be tough to shake off, and while this talks up Hutchence’s efforts to move beyond the Farris brothers musically (and suggests through his friendship with Bono that there was still a market for his style of frontman), realistically as a band they were past their peak.
Worse, an altercation with a taxi driver in Copenhagen in 1992 saw Hutchence suffer a serious and largely untreated brain injury. His collaborators talk of personality changes, mood swings; his seemingly perfect relationship with supermodel Helena Christensen (their home movies together are a delight) fell apart. It’s hinted that the attention-seeking Paula Yates was a less than ideal partner for him. The story’s end, while shocking to those around him, here comes as almost inevitable.
There are insights into the music and the celebrity relationships, but at its heart this is a deeply loving tribute to a man who seems to have stayed a decent human being throughout a life that would have turned many people into monsters. The music isn’t half bad either.
Mystify: Michael Hutchence
Director: Richard Lowenstein
Australia, 2019, 102 minutes
Australian Distributor: Madman
Australian Release Date: 4 July 2019