The singer's life, loves and mystifying death are explored in film directed by Richard Lowenstein
Perhaps nothing can fully explain the death of Michael Hutchence, the lead singer of the Australian rock band INXS. In 1997 he took his own life at age 37, putting an abrupt end to a hugely successful career that saw him become one of rock's biggest stars.
Richard Lowenstein's documentary Mystify: Michael Hutchence, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival Thursday night, likely gets as close to the truth as can possibly be achieved. The director knew Hutchence at the height of his fame, directing music videos for INXS (as well as U2 and The Who's Pete Townshend).
When Lowenstein met the singer for the first time in 1984 "I was sort of a Melbourne punk," the director told the audience at a Q&A following the world premiere. He revealed he initially felt little interest in INXS, which he said was then considered a "sunshine Sydney band." But later he would work with Hutchence not only on music videos but scripted films, including the feature Dogs in Space (1986).
"Richard was the only person to do [the documentary]," Hutchence's sister Tina, insisted during the Q&A. "He was so close to Michael. He'd worked with him. Michael respected him. He's a wonderful filmmaker."
Hutchence as depicted in Lowenstein's film grew up shy, basically stumbling into rock n' roll because some pals were into it. Eventually, he developed a potent singing voice of dynamic range (even though it's evident he never appreciated the extent of his vocal talent). He's described as a happy baby and a generally happy kid who tapped into an unexpected performative gift once INXS coalesced.
Why, if he appeared to be a fairly well-adjusted rock star, would he kill himself? The film suggests a few answers. One was the turbulence of his romantic life. He loved a succession of women intensely, including singer Kylie Minogue and Danish model Helena Christensen. He became romantically involved with Paula Yates, then married to rocker Bob Geldof, in the mid 1990s, a relationship that would provide fodder for the British tabloids and extraordinary angst for Hutchence.
There was also his drug use, which is hinted at but not probed in depth in Mystify. But perhaps the main cause of the singer's downward spiral was a traumatic brain injury Hutchence sustained after he was assaulted by a taxi driver in 1992. The seriousness of his injury was kept from the public at the time, but the documentary makes plain that he suffered personality changes after the incident and significant depression. He was never the same again, many of his intimates testify in the film, including his sister and his former love Christensen.
"Helena had never spoken about that accident. It's never been really looked at in how profound that was in changing Michael's life and what happened at the end," Lowenstein commented. "No one knew, because it had been kept secret. It was kind of amazing to get that first-hand account of it."
Along with Minogue, Christensen and Tina Hutchence, the film includes interviews with Michael's bandmates, his friend Bono of U2 and Michael's younger brother, Rhett. Similar to Amy, Asif Kapadia's Oscar-winning documentary on Amy Winehouse, the interviews are used as audio only. The visuals consist of archive photos of Hutchence, concert performances, music video outtakes and material shot by Hutchence himself, Minogue and others.
Lowenstein was asked why he decided against putting his interviewees on camera in Mystify.
"It was quite pragmatic. I felt what people had to say was very important but I also felt it's only a hundred minutes, this film, and I really need to have as much of Michael in it. So he's the only talking head in it, really," Lowenstein explained. "I basically decided I wanted to go back in time to the 90s, to the 80s, without having modern interviews sort of pulling you out and 'Oh, look it, now we're here and now we're going back again.' I wanted to actually immerse in a time capsule, like go back to those years."
Mystify: Michael Hutchence is set to screen again tonight at Tribeca and twice on Saturday. The festival runs from April 24-May5.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.