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Mystify: Michael Hutchence

A tender, thoughtful and electrifying music documentary about the life and legacy of the INXS frontman.
By Sarah Ward
July 04, 2019
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Mystify: Michael Hutchence

A tender, thoughtful and electrifying music documentary about the life and legacy of the INXS frontman.
By Sarah Ward
July 04, 2019
  shares

In these music-mad movie times, the following scene has become a familiar big-screen sight. Loitering backstage, the camera spies a talented, charismatic star. It catches a quick glimpse of its chosen figure in an unguarded moment, then charts their footsteps as they burst out the door, into a cavernous room, auditorium or arena. They're greeted by an adoring, screaming, near-ecstatic crowd — and when the person in the spotlight is doing what they do best, they're simply magic, with everything else seeming unimportant. This has proven true whether the real-life Amy Winehouse or Whitney Houston have been behind the microphone in recent documentaries, or whether Rami Malek is strutting his stuff as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. In Mystify: Michael Hutchence's opening minutes, we see the same thing from the eponymous Aussie rocker and INXS frontman. Before he was dead at 37, Hutchence knew how to flash a cheeky smile when no one else was looking. With thousands of people staring back at him, he knew how to keep an audience hanging off of his every word. Alas, even when he was dripping raw charm in the middle of a gig, he knew how to hide a world of sorrow behind his grin as well.

After Mystify's recognisable introduction, there's much in this passionate and intimate documentary that also feels familiar. Movies comprised of never-before-seen behind-the-scenes footage about troubled famous faces often unravel in a similar fashion, and accounts of music superstars who've died before their times tend to take a comparable path, too. If the increasing prevalence of such films, mirroring the increasing body count, isn't reason enough for society to rethink our celebrity worship and eager celebration of a sex 'n' drugs 'n' rock 'n' roll lifestyle, then nothing ever will be. Of course, that's a much bigger concern. In these tragic true tales, the home video, media interview and live performance clips obviously vary. While the broad strokes remain the same, the intricate minutiae also remains unique. Falling somewhere between sincere tribute and warts-and-all snapshot, these gone-but-not-forgotten portraits tend to ape their subjects, which Mystify does to an impressive degree. It's tender, thoughtful, energetic and electrifying, even when it's breaking your heart.

Indeed, just like Hutchence himself, Richard Lowenstein's film about the singer's rise and fall has its own distinctive spark. More than two decades after his death, which was ruled a suicide by hanging, the rockstar is alive again in the movie. Naturally, it helps that the Australian filmmaker knew Hutchence personally. Not only did Lowenstein direct more than 15 of INXS' music videos throughout the 80s and 90s, but he gave the vocalist his first acting role in Dogs In Space. It also helps that Hutchence's nearest and dearest lend their frank, unfettered recollections to the doco — all unfurling as emotional snippets of voiceover laid over the archival visuals, rather than through talking heads. Although they're never seen on screen, except in old footage, the interviewee list spans siblings, family members, childhood pals, INXS bandmates, lifelong friends, staff, celebs such as Bono, and girlfriends including Kylie Minogue and Helena Christensen.

What truly shapes Mystify, however, is that so much of the movie involves peering intently at its main man, and seeing what he did and didn't want everyone to see. First he's a shy yet lively kid growing up in a difficult household. Then he's a teenager drawn into the band because that's what his mates were doing. Later he's one of the biggest rock gods on the planet. Finally, he's someone understandably struggling with the trappings of fame — and coping however he can, frequently with the help of illicit substances. His eyes genuinely are the window to his soul, and to the documentary's. That's the case when Hutchence is gleaming excitedly while surveying a mass of people at the 1983 US Festival in California, and exclaiming "fucking hell" with a distinctive Australian drawl. It still applies when he's in speedos with Kylie on a boat in the middle of Hong Kong harbour, or beaming excitedly while sitting next to her on a cross-continental European train trip. And it's the same when he's looking far too sorrowful in his later years in Britain, as the tabloid scrutiny over his relationship with Paula Yates, and its role in breaking up her marriage to Bob Geldolf, reaches fever pitch.

The revelations come and go, sometimes emanating from the screen in Hutchence's silent gaze, sometimes echoing in shared tidbits from Mystify's long list of candid discussions. The expected soundtrack weaves in and out as well, with the film equally pulsating with many of INXS' huge tunes — 'Never Tear Us Apart', 'What You Need' and 'Bitter Tears' among them — and taking time to dwell on the man Hutchence was beyond the music. If performing on-stage is a dance, and if navigating stardom is one too, then the metaphorical jig continues in Lowenstein's documentary. With finessed editing, plus an evocative sense of pace and tone, this is a fluid and insightful piece of cinema that finds the most effective, involving and moving way to relay its well-known story. Hutchence's plight will never be overlooked in Australia, where his songs will always remain beloved hits (and will always be pumping on a classic rock radio station somewhere). What Mystify ensures is that not only will his highs and lows always be remembered, but also his innate, unshakable allure when he was just being himself.

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