Michael Hutchence’s attention spans the trees while walking through an olive grove. He can’t help but focus on how these ancient shrubs were nearly “immortal.” Untouched, some can even live over 1000 years. “They’re old, and we’ll never be,” he says.
It’s a poignant observation by the INXS singer, who died at the age of 37, in a clip from Mystify: Michael Hutchence, a documentary directed by longtime friend and collaborator Richard Lowenstein. It leaves very little mystique around Hutchence — specifically, his untimely death in 1997. Filled with intimate interviews and new revelations, Mystify is the most visceral look at Hutchence as a person and unravels the story of someone who wanted to be more than a sexy rock star, craved companionship and friendship, and left the world too soon. Billboard can exclusively reveal that it is playing in U.S. theaters for one night only, on Jan. 7, 2020 (Shout! Factory/Fathom Events); for ticket information, go here.
Lowenstein’s connection with Hutchence and INXS occurred after meeting the singer in Nice, France, in 1984. From there, he went on to direct 16 of the band’s videos, including “Never Tear Us Apart,” “Listen Like Thieves,” “Suicide Blonde” and “New Sensation.” Hutchence also starred as Sam, the singer of a band in Lowenstein’s 1986 film “Dogs in Space” (an examination of Melbourne’s post-punk “little band” music scene) and worked with the director during his brief, ill-fated solo excursion from INXS, Max Q, in 1989.
A close friendship flourished throughout the years, giving Lowenstein a glimpse into the band, particularly Hutchence’s world. Mystify is not INXS’ story — something Lowenstein says is another documentary in its own — but more about the man, Michael Kelland Hutchence. It’s a journey back in time, into the singer’s youth, family, music, romances and, ultimately, his end. Only the voices of interviewees are heard throughout the two-plus-hour film, something Lowenstein consciously decided to do early on. For Mystify, Hutchence’s screen time was more important, including some never-before-seen archival footage — most of which the singer recorded himself.
Humorous, heartfelt and raw, the tales from some of closest people in Hutchence’s life — such as his family, INXS bandmates and longtime manager Martha Troup — fill Mystify. “I wanted to take you on an immersive, time-traveling journey back to the ’80s,” says Lowenstein, adding, “Instead of pulling the audience back and forth in time, which is what a lot of the rock docs do, I wanted to take you back and keep you there, and travel through time as he grows and ultimately until the end, much like a novel does.”
Hutchence once told Bono that being a rock star meant “liberation.” He desired all of life’s decadent pleasures. Mystify exposes Hutchence at his most vulnerable, artistic, exploratory and reflective — excitedly waking his sister up at 4:00 a.m. to visit a cavernous spot in France described in one of his favorite books, Patrick Suskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, or talking into the morning hours about art, theater and life with close friend Chris Bailey, vocalist of The Saints.
He indulged in it all, specifically reveling in the opposite sex. The film follows his relationships from his teens with Ananda Braxton-Smith — who reminisced about their early fascination with the Beat Generation and such writers as Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski, Dylan Thomas, and Oscar Wilde — through his first real love, Michele Bennett, who inspired INXS’ 1988 hit “Never Tear Us Apart” from Kick. Coincidently, Bennett was also the last person the singer called and spoke to before he was found dead in a Sydney hotel, just days before INXS’ Australian tour supporting its 10th album, Elegantly Wasted, was set to kick off.
Former girlfriend Kylie Minogue, who started dating Hutchence while she was already at the height of her early pop career, shares intimate video footage with him, including a lavish voyage on the Orient Express. Their union, according to Minogue, was a hedonistic exploration of sex, drugs, food, travel, books and beyond. Rare footage of the couple’s first date on a boat on Hong Kong Harbour, which Hutchence gave to Lowenstein to process years ago but was accidentally mislabeled, is also seen for the first time.
Watch the trailer for Mystify below:
Mystify divulges a tragic moment in 1992 that severely impacted Hutchence for the rest of his life. As he and his then-girlfriend, model Helena Christensen, stopped on the side of a narrow road to eat pizza during an evening bike ride in Copenhagen, an irate cab driver jumped out of a car and, unprovoked, hit Hutchence, leaving him bloodied and unconscious on the ground. When he eventually went to see specialists after initially refusing medical treatment, Hutchence already had lost his sense of smell and taste, something Christensen, INXS and others agree left the already passionate Hutchence acting more erratically and angry during his final years. Hutchence later confided to friend Bono that the assault changed everything for him; he would never be able to smell his baby when it was born. And following his suicide, the coroner’s report showed substantial damage to Hutchence’s brain.
One crucial interview is with a woman who is only identified as Erin, who was Hutchence’s lover for several months prior to his death. She gives a direct glimpse into his mental state, including mood swings and breakdowns, amid the ongoing discord between rocker-humanitarian Bob Geldof and the ensuing custody battle following Hutchence’s affair with Geldof’s wife, Paula Yates. (Yates had three daughters with Geldof and gave birth to Hutchence’s daughter, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily, in 1996.) She once found the singer curled in a fetal position in the bathtub, bawling his eyes out, according to Lowenstein. In the film, Erin remembers her last visit with Hutchence and how she voiced her concern that he would take his own life; he assured her that would never happen.
Previously, Erin had never discussed the affair, and only after consulting with some of her and Hutchence’s mutual friends agreed to talk with Lowenstein. “What I thought was amazing is that even when Michael had an affair, he would pick someone with this great heart that he could trust, and it was almost instinctive that it wasn’t going to be some crazy person that was going to rush to the tabloids and make money out of ‘my time with Michael,’ ” says Lowenstein. “It was someone who had a conscience and sensibility and was going to do the right thing — and she was. Her story was very important, to see where his head was in those last couple of years.”
Despite having a complete story, a year into production Lowenstein still didn’t have the rights to use INXS’ music. Tangled in a rights limbo among band management, the record company and other entities, he only had Max Q tracks to work with until Tiger Lily intervened.
“I made contact with her initially because I wanted her to feel comfortable with [the film] and know that there was nothing in it she has to be upset about — it wasn’t doing a hatchet job on her father and mother — so she respected that,” says Lowenstein. “She wanted to keep in the shadows, but she did see it and said, ‘You need my father’s music. Why doesn’t it have my father’s music in it?’ ”
Tiger Lily sent an email to the band’s management and Universal Music Group, and within 24 hours, Lowenstein had nine INXS songs to use. If he could have chosen specific ones, he would have added 1980’s “Just Keep Walking” and 1981’s “Stay Young,” which he says was Hutchence’s quasi-anthem and truly describes the film.
The intimate interviews serve the film and Hutchence’s story, but Lowenstein believes they also provide a sense of therapy. “Some people are still processing it,” he says of Hutchence’s death. “You realize that a lot of people hadn’t talked about it and given the whole thing closure, and some of these interviews did help them. You can’t just chuck it away, the experience and the grief, even if you are going to a shrink for your own reasons — a lot of people couldn’t make sense of the ending.”
Perhaps Mystify offers some clarity to any speculation of how Hutchence really died and seeks a measure of respect for how he would have wanted to be immortalized. Lowenstein thinks his friend would appreciate the film.
“The Michael I knew would be very approving of the people I spoke to, who made their voices heard,” he says. “He was always into self-criticism, too, and wasn’t faking that he was this wonderful, amazing guy. He would have wanted a film to be authentic and honest, and prepare a record of who he was and his ambitions and give his musical reputation a serious context rather than being a weird anachronism of the ’80s. He wanted to be more than the long-haired sex god of the ’80s.”