One night at Sydney University we all turned up to see Mental As Anything. The support band was a lesser-known outfit named INXS. At this point the script should read: “…but that support band would blow the Mentals away and go on to international superstardom. It was all down to their electrifying lead singer, Michael Hutchence…”
Actually, it was completely different. INXS came across as bland, clichéd power pop, and Hutchence as a strutting prat playing the role of a rock star. They performed to a lukewarm audience who saw them as marking time before the main act.
More than 30 years later we can look back upon INXS as rock legends who scored six consecutive top ten hits in the United States, and Mental As Anything as one of Australia’s greatest pub bands. But it doesn’t mean the crowd had the wrong priorities that night. Success in popular music often goes to those who are less talented but more ambitious.
Richard Lowenstein’s documentary, Mystify: Michael Hutchence, looks at the rise and fall of a rock idol who never seems to have been entirely comfortable within his own skin. In 1986 Lowenstein cast Hutchence in the lead role in his shapeless but compelling movie about the Melbourne music scene, Dogs in Space. There wasn’t a lot of acting involved, as Hutchence’s character was off his face most of the time. In the years that followed Lowenstein would direct a succession of music videos for INXS.
Like a portraitist that does his best work when he knows his subject, Lowenstein has given us an insider’s view of Hutchence in a film that has taken a decade to complete. Most of the voices we hear belong to the singer’s friends and family, notably the women with whom he had long-term relationships such Kylie Minogue and Helena Christensen. There are no contributions by journalists, and surprisingly little from other members of the band.
What we get is an intimate examination of Hutchence’s personality, or perhaps ‘personalities’. It’s a strange mix, and in classic Freudian style Lowenstein traces everything back to his subject’s childhood. His parents were party animals who often left young Michael in the care of his big sister, Tina. His mother, Patricia, was a model, addicted to the limelight, while his father, Kel, was a beacon of masculine charm.
Michael was a dreamy child who wanted to please his parents, and everyone else. His brother, Rhett, was the angry type, and suffered the indignity of watching his mother take Michael away to America for a year and a half, leaving him in the care of a series of Dial-an-Angel helpers while his father pursued his business interests. In Rhett’s case the results were predictable: low self-esteem and drug addiction. For Michael, the chosen son, there was a lingering sense of guilt, as if he had betrayed his brother.
None of this would emerge right away. As a young man, Hutchence dreamed of being an artist. He read all the usual things: Herman Hesse, Albert Camus, Oscar Wilde, the Beat poets. When he joined with his friends in INXS it gave him the creative outlet he sought, and he quickly assumed the rock star persona.
This was probably the point at which I saw the band. Hutchence’s posturing looked like a poor imitation of Mick Jagger, and I’m not sure it ever got much further. Even as he became famous he had ambitions to be known as an “artist”, but he probably reached the limits of his abilities as a rock singer with every vocal mannerism in the book. If he was outdone by anyone in this respect, it was his friend, Bono.
Hutchence may have sounded immature and pretentious, but he also seems to have been a genuinely nice guy with an innate charm. He had serious sex appeal and a seductive way of looking into a woman’s eyes. Queue that old epithet: “He made you feel as if you were the only person in the room.”
The story of this documentary is how it all went wrong, ending in the singer’s sucide in a Double Bay hotel room in November 1997. There’s that obvious lament about the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle and the toll it takes, not to mention the depressions and insecurities that come with fame. But regardless of the care with which Lowenstein has built up his psychological profile of a doomed rock star, it’s a random incident in 1992 that seals Hutchence’s fate, when he is punched by a taxi driver in Copenhagen and hits his head against the footpath.
He would emerge with permanent brain damage that destroyed his enjoyment of life and seemed to alter his personality. It’s the fatal twist in a superficially glamorous existence in which sadness was never far from the surface. Hutchence had shown glimpses of a dark side with all his girlfrends, but when he took up with Bob Geldorf’s egocentric missus, Paula Yates, things got really messy and he seemed progressively more helpless.
Michael Hutchence may have been a global sex symbol and rock god, but there are many moments in this story when one is struck by how ordinary he was, how lacking in guile, how vulnerable to insults and put-downs. At the end of this film there is nothing whatsoever that is mystifying about his life or his death.
Mystify: Michael Hutchence
Written & directed by Richard Lowenstein
Starring Michel Hutchence
Australia, rated MA 15+, 102 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 6 July, 2019