'Mystify: Michael Hutchence': Film Review

Tribeca Film Festival
An intimate snapshot of the late INXS frontman.

Michael Hutchence is recollected by his friends and family in this documentary by Richard Lowenstein, the director of several INXS music videos.

Documentary biopics about tortured geniuses are a dime a dozen, and while Richard Lowenstein's tribute to late INXS frontman Michael Hutchence doesn't exactly reconfigure the form, it should prove essential viewing for the subject's fans: a tender portrait of the man's highs and lows that sheds new light on the broken years that directly preceded his suicide at 37. Mystify: Michael Hutchence made its hometown debut at the Sydney Film Festival last week after earlier premiering at Tribeca.

Lowenstein directed several clips for INXS as well as casting Hutchence in his 1986 feature Dogs in Space, and his proximity to the singer's sphere has helped him to enlist former girlfriends (Kylie Minogue, Helena Christensen) and friends (Bono) in telling his story. Some of them have even provided camcorder footage and photographs from their personal collections. Their recollections play underneath tour footage and snippets from the band's media appearances at the height of their fame, soundtracked by some of the group's biggest hits and an elegiac score by Dirty Three's Warren Ellis.

Hutchence himself emerges as a sweetly shy character, with killer looks and a certain ethereal quality that made him irresistible, in a manner not dissimilar to Ayrton Senna. Asif Kapadia's 2010 portrait of the F1 legend is arguably ground zero for the current boom of biodocs that eschew talking heads for archival collage, though Lowenstein smoothly integrates interviews with figures — managers and record producers, Hutchence family members and personal assistants — who never appear onscreen. 

The band's formation and early days touring Australia are dealt with swiftly, underlining the sheer number of gigs that honed Hutchence's voice and electric stage presence before INXS broke out with international singles like "What You Need," "Need You Tonight" and "Never Tear Us Apart." The latter was inspired by the singer's breakup with girlfriend Michelle Bennett, who talks movingly about the toll that touring exacted upon their relationship. Minogue, too, speaks affectionately of her former beau, and the pleasures — food, sex, travel — that defined their time together.

The director and his co-editors Tayler Martin and Lynn-Maree Milburn double back, after tracking the star's ascent, to his childhood, where a lifelong sense of guilt was instilled in the boy when his mother split and took Michael along — but left his little brother behind. The good qualities Hutchence inherited from his parents are nevertheless convincingly sketched; a certain star power from his model turned makeup artist mother, and from his father an ability to put people — women in particular — at ease. 

Hutchence is heard summarizing Patrick Suskind's novel Perfume for Minogue's benefit, and the late singer's fixation on the book attains a kind of ironic fatalism when he's punched by a taxi driver, years later, while out cycling with Christensen — and loses his sense of smell. Christensen recalls the anger the incident engendered in her hitherto gentle boyfriend, and his insistence it be kept secret. This is reinforced when his bandmates recall how much their frontman changed after the "bike accident"; how much they knew about the incident is left dangling.

The downward spiral that follows is compounded by the declining fortunes of the band, crystallized by Noel Gallagher publicly labeling the singer a "has-been" onstage at an awards gala while Hutchence looks on, as well as the London tabloid frenzy surrounding his relationship with Paula Yates, the wife of Bob Geldof. His eventual death in a hotel room is attributed to the pain caused by his separation from Yates and their daughter once the singer embarks on the Australian tour that would become a final homecoming.

Lowenstein includes tracks by Hutchence contemporary Nick Cave and Nils Frahm (along with Ellis, Cave and Frahm composed the score for the director's last film, 2015's Ecco Homo) in addition to INXS hits. But even more than the music, what shines through is the lead singer's magic as a live performer. The film takes its title from the band's 1987 single, and it captures the strange alchemy that occurred when Hutchence went onstage — transforming from an uncertain young man into a rock god with a lightning gaze who embodied come-hither confidence.

Production companies: Ghost Pictures, Passion Pictures
Director-screenwriter: Richard Lowenstein
Producers: John Battsek, Andrew de Groot, Mark Fennessy, Maya Gnyp, Richard Lowenstein, Lynn-Maree Milburn, Sue Murray
Cinematographer: Andrew de Groot
Editors: Tayler Martin, Richard Lowenstein, Lynn-Maree Milburn
Music: Warren Ellis
Venue: Sydney Film Festival
Sales: Dogwoof

102 minutes