Life & Culture

The Tabloid-Tarnished Legacy of INXS Frontman Michael Hutchence

As a new documentary about the prismatic Aussie frontman hits UK screens, we speak with the film’s director about Michael Hutchence, the man some have dubbed “music’s last true sex god”

In the late 1980s, at the peak of INXS’ chart-topping dominance, Michael Hutchence elevated his band’s tender pop-rock anthems with his undeniable star power. There was his tousled, tumbling mane; that genial, magnetic grin; the understated vocal intensity of Never Tear Us Apart; those Dionysian crotch thrusts and a Jagger-like stage presence. Having achieved global superstardom roughly a decade into forming their new wave-leaning sextet, Hutchence and his bandmates made it possible for aspiring Aussie musicians touring their country’s unrelenting pub circuit to think they could also one day sell out arena-sized stadiums the world over. Of course, as with Earth’s gravitational pull and so much else, what goes up must always come down. But in Hutchence’s case, the fall from grace happened in a truly devastating and definitive way, cutting his life short at only 37 years old in 1997. 

Now that the deluge of salacious tell-all pieces, TV dramas and tabloid gossip has simmered down and the public conversation has shifted toward erecting a $145K memorial statue of Hutchence in bronze, his close friend Richard Lowenstein, who also directed many of the band’s music videos, took it upon himself to unearth a treasure trove of archival footage and speak to the friends, lovers and family members who cared for him most (including Bono and ex-girlfriends Kylie Minogue and Helena Christensen) for Mystify, an intimate and mostly hagiographic documentary portrait that never attempts to be anything but. And considering the near-crucifixion Hutchence was subjected to by the British press toward the end of his life, brought on by his coupling with popular TV presenter Paula Yates – then-wife to Sir Bob Geldof – the scales needed some recalibrating.

Peak Paparazzi 

“The British tabloid press chased him all over the world, driven by this voyeuristic pleasure in seeing the mighty fall,” Lowenstein tells me when I ask whether this feeding frenzy was symptomatic of an era when camera-toting goons felt totally justified chasing around the likes of Princess Diana. “I don’t think it would have happened with the press of any other country, certainly not the American or the Australian press. If you look at how the British chased them both at the time, there was a hell of a lot of colonial prejudice, as in ‘the Dirty Dingo’, the filthy convict chasing out Sir Bob’s missus. Especially from an Australian perspective. They really had the knives out.”

Mystify, which had its world premiere last spring at Tribeca, doesn’t solely dwell on those tragedy-stained final years, instead providing a comprehensive survey of the prismatic person he was: his glamorous but dysfunctional upbringing in 1960s Hong Kong and the US; his insatiable wanderlust and intellectual curiosity, as someone who’d never had the chance to pursue higher education; and the catastrophic emotional turmoil (and traumatic brain injury) he sustained after being king-hit by a taxi driver in Copenhagen, where he notably lost all sense of smell and taste.

Male Friendships in the 1980s

As he dove deep into archival material, Lowenstein also came upon a startling realisation: that Hutchence had once referred to him as his best friend in interviews, something unbeknownst to him. In many ways, that speaks volumes about the posturing and bravado typical of male friendships of the time. “A lot of people don’t realise how much gender roles and expectations have changed in the last 30 years,” Lowenstein says. “In the 1980s, we were all feeling enlightened and everything, but there really were these subconscious barriers. I really regret not sitting down and having more deep and meaningful or sensitive conversations, just asking Michael about his past and his family.”

Along with Hutchence’s unguarded sensitivity and post-women’s rights brand of hedonism, that gender imbalance comes across loud and clear in the film, with his female friends and ex-girlfriends contributing a much more well-rounded portrait of the man. Minogue, who recounts their two-year relationship spent faxing each other love notes from one hotel room to another, described him as a deeply sensual being. “He loved seeing me experience a new wine or me learning about a new pleasure.” 

“His male friendships do tend to have, by their nature, a bit of what I call ‘war stories’, as in ‘let's go off and party through the night,’” observes Lowenstein. “But with his female friends and relationships, they got to see him when he woke up, curled up in the bathtub sobbing. The good, the bad and the ugly. I found their interviews so much more insightful than a lot of the male interviews, including my own.”

Michael’s Achilles’ Heel 

Mystify also delves into what many saw as Hutchence’s Achilles’ heel: his perception that others were better artists, while he mostly got credit for shaking his derriere. The doc features a heartbreaking clip of Hutchence presenting a Brit Award to Oasis for Wonderwall, with ever-delightful bully Noel Gallagher dismissing the INXS frontman by declaring at the podium that “has-beens shouldn’t present awards to gonna-bes”.

Needing to branch out of the INXS project and detour to a place where he could channel all the emotional intensity and creativity that pop music wouldn’t allow him, Hutchence recorded what many regard as the strongest artistic statement of his career as Max Q in the late 1980s with his friend and avant-garde composer Ollie Olsen. “His idols were people like Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave, combined with a lot of the funk influences that he had,” says Lowenstein. “He was trying to fuse all those things together. I think that’s what the Max Q project enabled him.” 

In retrospect, the influence of this sensitive lyricist on a generation of artists is undeniable. In addition to the countless INXS covers performed by the likes of Goo Goo Dolls and The Killers’ Brandon Flowers, a staggering number of artists have also penned songs either inspired by or dedicated to him, from Duran Duran (Michael, You’ve Got A Lot to Answer For) and Minogue to U2 and Smashing Pumpkins (Shame). One gets the feeling that, had the corrosive cocktail of peak paparazzi, traumatic brain injury and low self-esteem not played out in such dramatic fashion, the future could have been so much brighter for this treasured musician.

Mystify: Michael Hutchence previews in cinemas nationwide on October 16, 2019, with general release on October 18, 2019.