July 2019

Arts & Letters

All veils and misty: Richard Lowenstein’s ‘Mystify: Michael Hutchence’

By Anwen Crawford
The insider documentary that wipes clear the myths obscuring the INXS singer

It began – as many a music documentary seems to have done – with Bono. “I’ve worked a bit with U2,” says filmmaker Richard Lowenstein, unassumingly. “And Bono came up to me once and said, ‘You know, I’m terrified that someone will realise I’m just this scared, shy little Irish kid, and this is all a con.’”

The star’s confession got Lowenstein thinking about the “dilemma” of fame, and particularly about how it might have affected the two men’s late, mutual friend, INXS singer Michael Hutchence, a self-described “little English prat from Hong Kong” who channelled his own shyness into a magnetic performance style. At the height of INXS’s commercial success, Hutchence was one of the few rock singers able to challenge Bono’s stadium-sized charisma, and his unashamed sensuality on stage and screen distinguished him from every other male Australian rock performer. He wasn’t blokey, but nor did he come wrapped in an aura of impenetrable, underground cool; “the language of his performance seemed to work everywhere,” observes Lowenstein. To my mind, Hutchence is the only bona fide rock star that Australia has ever produced, and, given the shifts in popular music since INXS’s heyday – smaller sales, splintered audiences and rock’s not undeserved fade from prominence – he may well remain so.

But Lowenstein, who directed Hutchence in more than a dozen music videos for INXS, and in the lead role of his 1986 feature film, Dogs in Space, had grown frustrated over the years at the way in which Hutchence – or his public image – had calcified into a set of rock-star clichés: sexy, volatile, prematurely dead. Mystify: Michael Hutchence, released this month, is Lowenstein’s documentary tribute to his friend, and an attempt to counter the tabloid myths that came to dominate Hutchence’s life and especially his sudden death at the age of 37. It is assembled from archival film and photographs, much of it sourced from Hutchence’s family and friends, as well as some footage shot by Hutchence himself. Along with home video and personal snaps – Hutchence as a young boy, cradling a guitar he couldn’t really play; Hutchence on a luxurious European holiday with former partner Kylie Minogue – there are concert clips, backstage moments and outtakes from INXS music videos. “I’ve always had footage,” Lowenstein says. “Behind-the-scenes stuff.” The visual material he gathered is overlaid with audio taken from interviews with Hutchence and from “50, 60 interviews” that Lowenstein conducted himself – the first was with Bono – during the course of many years of research. Nearly all of Hutchence’s ex-partners speak on record during Mystify, as do his INXS bandmates, his personal manager Martha Troup, and his siblings, Rhett and Tina Hutchence.

The result is a portrait that feels both intimate and elusive. After Hutchence died, says Lowenstein, “all the people who were close to him, the people who are in the film, stayed quiet”, waiting for the media storm to blow over. But the collage form that Lowenstein has chosen for his film is an implicit acknowledgment that a single, narrative truth of Hutchence’s life is impossible to settle on. The same could be said of all of our lives; it was Hutchence’s misfortune to have to live what turned out to be his last years in the harsh and flattening glare of media notoriety. “I’m basically pretty shy, so I find the whole thing nightmarish,” we hear him say in the film, with reference to the British tabloid press, who hounded him and Paula Yates over the couple’s affair, their drug use and the parenting of their child, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily. “There’s a bullying mentality in England, and a misogynistic one, and that’s scary.”

Hutchence made failures of judgement – who doesn’t? – but he was clearly a more complex, more interesting person than posthumous myth has allowed: a dreamy, quiet kid who turned out to be a supremely confident performer; a would-be bohemian who ended up a superstar; a serial romantic with a taste for the high life who nevertheless also wanted to be a homebody. Lowenstein thinks that Hutchence could have had a different sort of career. “He was always fascinated with the artistic credibility that Nick Cave had,” he says, and the two singers did eventually forge a friendship. Cave sang his hymn-like song “Into My Arms” at Hutchence’s funeral.

About one thing Lowenstein is unambiguous. “He killed himself, there’s no question,” he says, of Hutchence’s death on November 22, 1997, in a Sydney hotel room. The singer had flown from London to Australia for a series of shows with INXS, but he and Yates were also embroiled in a child custody dispute with Yates’s ex-husband, Bob Geldof, over Tiger Lily and Yates’s two daughters by Geldof. Having learnt that legal action would prevent Yates and the children from joining him in Australia, Hutchence was desperate and distressed. Michele Bennett, his former partner who had remained his close confidante, recalls of a phone call she received that morning from Hutchence: “He just sounded so exhausted and depleted, in the most extreme way.” Twenty minutes after Hutchence called her, Bennett knocked on his hotel room door. Receiving no answer, she left, thinking he had fallen asleep.

A 1998 New South Wales State Coroner’s report concluded that Hutchence had committed suicide, but a persistent rumour took hold – born partly of Yates’s grief, and abetted by tabloid voyeurism – that he had died as the result of a sex game gone wrong. This rumour fit the stereotype: kinky idiot singer accidentally tops himself. But his must have been a profoundly lonely end.

Lowenstein’s other “agenda”, as he calls it, was to place greater emphasis on the changes wrought to Hutchence by an assault that took place in 1992, in Copenhagen, when Hutchence was punched by a taxi driver and hit the curb. The attack fractured his skull, and resulted in Hutchence losing his sense of smell. Post-­assault, the alterations in his personality were obvious to those who knew him. “He flew to Melbourne not long after that assault,” Lowenstein remembers, “and you could tell that he was different. You’d go out for a beer and after one drink there was a very different sensibility going on – totally scatterbrained, can’t follow a sentence.” But Hutchence kept his injury a secret from the press, which in the end did him no favours, as his newly volatile behaviour seemed to have no explanation apart from wilful misconduct. His autopsy would reveal lasting brain damage.

All of this is tragic, but it was not the sum of Hutchence’s life. Before it had come long years of glory.

The Farriss brothers – Andrew, Tim and Jon – befriended Hutchence at school during the ’70s, in Sydney’s northern suburbs. To the brothers’ complement of keyboards, guitar and drums would be added local mates Garry “Gary” Beers, on bass, and Kirk Pengilly, on saxophone and guitar. Together as INXS, they became one of Australia’s most popular and commercially successful bands. They also hit it unusually big overseas. Their singles and albums charted in Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and parts of Europe. Kick (1987) delivered them four top 10 singles in the United States, which they consolidated with a further two – “Disappear” and “Suicide Blonde” – from the 1990 follow-up X. In 1991 they sold out London’s Wembley Stadium, playing to more than 70,000 people.

Credit for INXS’s overseas success is often given to their long-term manager, Chris Murphy. In Mystify he recalls telling the group, “I’m gonna work you guys like dogs.” INXS toured for vast stretches, during their early years in Australia, paying their dues on the pub rock circuit, and then overseas. Their Kick tour alone lasted for more than a year. But INXS never quite fit Sydney’s gritty rock scene – Midnight Oil, Cold Chisel, Divinyls, et al – and Lowenstein thinks that to give Murphy sole credit for the band’s overseas success is to underplay the group’s own sense of internationalism. Hutchence, who had spent parts of his childhood in both Hong Kong and the US, had a world view that extended beyond Australian shores. Lowenstein recalls travelling to the States for the first time in the early ’80s, where “everyone thought INXS were an English band. Not just Michael, but all the band members – they looked very international.”

Anyone who lived through the ’80s might be forgiven for regarding INXS as a relentless and possibly mindless hit machine, and they were not necessarily held in high esteem by critics. Robert Christgau, so-called Dean of American Rock Critics, called them “silly middlebrow hacks”, which I appreciate insofar as it’s always fun to call to your pet hates middlebrow. But Christgau also once described Kate Bush as a “spiritual sexpot” and meant it as a compliment, so I don’t trust his judgement. Anyway, listening to the INXS back catalogue now, with the benefit of several decades’ hindsight, what stands out is their facility for a tight, funk-influenced sound, far less blustery and obvious than the kind of work that U2 – for instance – were doing at a similar time. Disco genius Nile Rodgers clearly recognised that aspect of INXS when he agreed to produce their fourth album, The Swing (1984), and its lead single, “Original Sin”, which became the group’s first number-one hit in Australia. It’s still an unusual song within the context of Australian pop history, in its melancholy yearning for racial reconciliation.

INXS’s blend of funk, rock and new-wave pop stood them apart from their local peers, excepting Icehouse, who were pursuing a similar sound. But INXS had Hutchence, their super X factor. Revisiting their music videos, including the Lowenstein-directed “Need You Tonight”, is to be reminded not only that Hutchence had a terrific rock voice but that he also had the gift of performing to camera. This was quite an asset to possess during the reigning years of MTV, Rage and other such music television platforms.

Part of his gift was his beauty – the lithe figure, the leonine curls – but there’s more to it than that. “Michael was quite magical with his eyes,” Lowenstein observes. Hutchence knew how to be intimate and vulnerable in front of the camera; Lowenstein recalls him looking down the lens as if communing with a lover. “There was no bullshit in his gaze,” he says. The romanticism, the hint of cheekiness, the sensuality: Hutchence appealed to women in part because his performances were for women’s enjoyment without demeaning them. It seems he was never a sleaze. Pleasure interested him, but not the abuse of his power.

“The aspect of fame he loved,” Lowenstein remembers, “and I was witness to this many times, is that you’d been driving along and he’d wind the window down and the person in the next car would lean over and say, ‘Hey, I know you! Who are you?’

“And Michael would say, ‘Oh, I’m just a nobody, just a nobody.’ And back and forth. ‘No, I know you, I’ve seen you somewhere before.’ He’d just play this game, and then eventually they’d work it out and you’d see this realisation – ‘Oh my God, you’re that rock star’ – and they’d all start screaming. And he would just think that was the best thing ever.”

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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