Mystify: a film about Michael Hutchence

It was the summer of 1988 and my high school graduation party was about to begin. Chairs and tables were set up in the garage and in the yard of my parents home. A gift wrapped box with a slot in the top for cards with cash and checks was placed just inside the front door. The best local meats were about to go on the barbie. Guests were arriving.

There was just one problem—I had somewhere else to be.

That year my favorite band had become the biggest band in the world, and, two months earlier I had bought tickets to their show in Chicago…which happened to fall right on the day of my own party. From what I hear, people had a decent time without me. And I came home to find a respectable amount of money donated to my college fund.

Maybe I should have felt guilty about it, and under other circumstances I probably would have. But that night, I was going to see INXS. It didn’t matter whose party it was—there was only one option.

Never once have I regretted that choice.

Nine years later, when their lead singer—the slinky, serpentine Michael Hutchence—took his own life in a hotel room in Sydney, Australia, November 22, 1997, I was crushed. Five days later he was buried…on my birthday.

When I heard there was going to be a documentary on his life called Mystify (named after one of their better known songs), my first thought was, “that’s great.” My second thought was, “…don’t fuck it up. Please.”

Last night I got to see Mystify at my local theater which was hosting a one-night-only showing through Fathom Events. I walked in with high hopes and more than a little trepidation. When you feel very close to something, it can become too easy to pick a thing apart that doesn’t hit every note you wish it would.

And while Mystify does omit a couple of touchstones (the album Welcome To Wherever You Are and Hutchence’s final recordings are not referenced in the movie), what is onscreen is choice. In fact, I would argue that it’s the finest documentary of its kind since the landmark Amy, the Oscar-nominated film about the life of Amy Winehouse (2015).

There are only so many types of stories to be told. What sets one apart from another is the telling. Mystify does include some of the typical tragic artist tropes one might expect: the humble beginnings, the ascent, the peak, and the fall are all there. But these are all executed with artistry and grace.

Australian director Richard Lowenstein assembles the film’s footage in such a way that to watch it feels like eavesdropping. He uses none of the typical “talking head” shots so ubiquitous in documentaries. Instead, interviews are heard in voice over, connecting you to the footage onscreen. The result is an intimate experience that at times plays almost like a somber thriller.

Even though you already know the ending, the subject before you seems so alive and so present, that you find yourself wishing for a miracle—for the story to somehow end differently. When the inevitable happens, it still sends a chill up your spine and a lump into your throat.

That’s great filmmaking.

I found it surprising how much more deeply the film connected me to a person I walked into the theater knowing so much about. I knew he had a troubled family life growing up; his mother and father were often absent; his older sister a de facto parent.

I was not aware that when his mother decided to leave his father and come to America that she took only Michael with her – leaving her younger son, Rhett, crying and begging after them at the airport. Michael never forgave himself for that, despite it not being his fault.

It’s rare details like these that make the difference between a good documentary and a great one.

Almost every woman he was romantically involved with contributed to the film. He broke the hearts of each, but you can tell they love him still—not because he was perfect, but because even when he was swallowed by fame, he remained real. It probably didn’t hurt that he was beautiful, sensitive, and had one hell of a voice—a voice that Bono praises in the film while also expressing annoyance that Michael never knew just how good he was.

I don’t want to give the impression that the whole movie is depressing. There’s joy to be found in the film particularly in the youthful exuberance of the band’s early days: these six Australian boys (three of them brothers) came together at just the right moment and would go on to briefly become the biggest band in the world. Mystify makes you feel the serendipity of that.

The heart leaps watching the on-stage performances, the signs of progress, and the resulting chart-topping hits. For most rock bands, success is temporary – but INXS was either near the top or at the summit for an entire decade. They viewed the world from great heights, which made their fall all the more steep.

After the massive success of Kick, the next two albums X and Welcome To Wherever You Are sold at a slower pace. Their next record, Full Moon, Dirty Hearts bombed, in part due to a change in trend towards grunge rock that the band was unable to navigate, but also because their lead singer had changed from a sweetly insecure man to an angry, often aggressive one.

I knew that Hutchence had suffered a head injury in France after being assaulted by a deranged cab driver. But I didn’t know that due to the impact of his head striking the ground he forever lost his sense of taste and smell. In a well-placed voice-over, a neurologist explains how disruptive the loss of smell is to one’s emotional life. For a sensualist like Hutchence, it had to have been devastating.

Upon his death, an autopsy uncovered the severity of his brain damage. In one scene in the back half of the film Hutchence struggles to remember the names of his own songs and people in his life. It’s the kind of thing you might not have thought much about at the time, but with the added context provided by the film, it takes on a new significance.

As the venues the band played got smaller and radio turned to a new generation of hit-makers, Hutchence became lost. Nothing hurts like irrelevance, and when a cruel joke by the ascendant Noel Gallagher of Oasis is made at Hutchence’s expense at an awards show (“has-beens shouldn’t give out awards to gonna-be’s”), the hurt on Hutchence’s face is palpable.

The final stretch of the film is brutally painful. Hutchence falls in love with the popular British TV personality Paula Yates, the wife of Sir Bob Geldof, the man knighted for creating Live Aid and known throughout England as “Saint Bob.” Hutchence moved to London where he was viewed as a home-wrecking, past -his-prime rock star. He was no longer famous, but infamous.

The slide into oblivion that follows has its share of cliches: drugs; embarrassing public appearances; legal troubles. What makes these moments ache is that you never mistake Hutchence for anything other than a terribly troubled sweetheart of a man who wasn’t equipped for the hand he was dealt.

You root for him right up until the last moment, when the band’s manager, Martha Troup, recounts the awful day of his suicide: “They called and told me…” then her voice cracks and her sentence goes unfinished.

And isn’t that what suicide is? An unfinished sentence? I don’t believe that Hutchence really wanted to die. I think he just wanted to stop hurting. In one of his final songs, Slide Away, recorded for a solo project released posthumously, Hutchence sings…

“I just want to slide away and come alive again.”

The problem is you can only do the first thing—never the second.

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