Mystify: Michael Hutchence succeeds in separating the man from the myth

The starry life and sad death of INXS frontman Michael Hutchence is explored in a documentary that looks to the man and not his myths. It could have gone further, but mostly it succeeds, writes critic Craig Mathieson.

It’s close to amazing that Richard Lowenstein’s documentary about the late INXS frontman Michael Hutchence works as well as it does, given the sheer amount of clichés it has to navigate and transcend. Mystify is a music documentary that has a very clear raise and fall arc – Hutchence grew up in a broken family, found monumental fame with his Perth friends, enjoyed stardom, and experienced unexpected difficulties that culminated with his death by suicide in 1997 – that features everything from success measured by Billboard chart achievements and the input of U2’s Bono, the patron saint of the rock doc.

But Lowenstein, a friend of Hutchence’s who directed numerous INXS video clips and the singer’s best acting performance, in 1986’s Dogs in Space, treats these familiar indents as marker points. His goal is to capture the person behind the façade and his technique is textural, relying on home video footage – some shoot by Hutchence himself – audio recordings, and snatches of contrasted public performance with a bed of audio testimony from archival sources and contemporary interviews with band members, family, and most crucially, his partners along the way. A few sequences, such as Hutchence’s years in the early nineties with Danish supermodel Helena Christensen, have an almost dreamy quality, as if his privileged life is an otherworldly experience.

This all works, to a degree. Like many famous performers, Hutchence offered a persona to the world that was pared down to an outline – the sexy male singer, in his case – and then amplified for global consumption (in part by Lowenstein’s videos), while the truth was more complex. Lowenstein doesn’t want to offer a verdict about Hutchence, instead he shows the differing elements to him. “He just wanted you to be happy,” early girlfriend Amanda Brixton-Smith notes, and he was focused on sharing his experiences with those close to him. He was a hedonist, as made clear by hits such as What You Need and New Sensation, but he wanted the food and fine wine, sex and artistic experiences to be a bonding experience.

A cowardly punch from a Copenhagen taxi driver in 1992 set the course for Hutchence’s final years: the brain damage he suffered when knocked unconscious on the street took away his sense of taste and smell (plainly a devastating loss), and left him intermittently angry and sometimes violent. A tortuous relationship with the British broadcaster Paula Yates bought him a baby daughter, legal woes, and the ire of the British tabloid press. The testimony from those around Hutchence is damning, but Lowenstein’s interwoven approach doesn’t allow for their close questioning – like INXS’s ascendance, his final years and descent into depression is presented as a fait accompli. Nothing could seemingly change it.

Lowenstein, sometimes in collaboration with his fellow filmmaker Lynn-Maree Milburn, has made an entire strand of documentaries about Australian artists from his punk rock roots, most notably 2011’s Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard. That film, fixed on a cult figure, allowed for more directorial daring. Mystify is knowing, and tragically complete, but it doesn’t want to step past the details it lays out. There’s a shot near the close, of Hutchence’s face in profile during a performance, lit by a stringent blue strobe, which is hugely compelling. It’s a rare moment of transformative filmmaking. This documentary might have benefited from more of that, but nonetheless the movie does succeed in separating the man from his myths.