n the mid-1980s there were few men who could claim rock god status quite like Michael Hutchence. The hugely charismatic lead singer of INXS burst on the scene with his band’s first big hit, 1985’s “What You Need” (though true fans remember as far back as 1982’s “The One Thing” and “Don’t Change”, which enjoyed decent MTV airplay at the time).
Twelve short years and seven albums later, Michael Hutchence was gone, leaving behind one heck of a musical legacy along with a slew of questions and conjectures about what could possibly make this quintessential front man want to take his own life. With Richard Lowenstein’s intimate and ultimately heart-wrenching documentary Mystify: Michael Hutchence, we finally get some clarity and understanding.
Lowenstein, an Australian director who befriended the band early on and went on to direct 16 of INXS’s music videos, has been working on Mystify for more than a decade, giving the project the required due diligence, convincing the people who knew him best to share their memories. From Hutchence’s parents to his bandmates to his famous girlfriends to Bono, there is no voice missing from the film, and the result is a comprehensive and honest account that bears watching—not only among INXS fans but for anyone who appreciates documentary filmmaking as an important and necessary art form.
Beginning with Hutchence’s grade school days and continuing through his tragic 1997 suicide, Mystify delicately paints a portrait of a man often compared to The Doors’ Jim Morrison, not only because of his premature death and star quality but his volatility. After watching the film, however, it’s clear that Marilyn Monroe may be a more apt comparison. We learn early on how the singer’s biggest fear was just being lonely and that he spent his days reading Camus and Ginsberg and Sartre. And the tidy little bow comes when Lowenstein gives us Hutchence singing Monroe’s staple “I Wanna Be Loved By You”. Mystify never draws the parallel out loud, but by the end of the film, the similarities are obvious and provide illuminating insight into the famously enigmatic and private man.
The bombshell moment of Mystify comes almost two-thirds of the way through, as then-girlfriend Helena Christensen relates a story of how Hutchence sustained brain damage after an altercation on a Copenhagen street in 1992. The vastly under-reported story and its dire consequences (Hutchence kept it all a secret throughout his life) seem to instantly make everything crystal clear, as if Lowenstein knew he could, in one moment, set the record completely straight, leaving no doubt in our minds as to the extent of the issues with which his old friend was coping.
Credit also to Lowenstein for bucking the documentary trend and instead giving us a film where the only interview subject’s face we ever see is Hutchence himself. Even though the director interviewed more than 60 people, he used only their audio in the finished film, avoiding the pitfall of modern-day talking heads breaking up the film’s mood. “I wanted to actually immerse in a time capsule, like go back to those years,” Lowenstein told a crowd at a recent Tribeca screening.
A time capsule indeed, Lowenstein’s exquisitely crafted film teaches us definitively that few have ever done it as well as the great Michael Hutchence while simultaneously coping with so much and ultimately paying so high a price. It’s a tragic tale, to be sure, but one that finally gives the consummate rock god his due.