Dressed all in black with a shock of grey hair tumbling over his spectacles, filmmaker Richard Lowenstein’s breath catches for a moment and his eyes glimmer with would-be tears as he recalls hearing the news that his good friend and long-term collaborator Michael Hutchence had taken his own life on November 22, 1997.
“I was pretending to write a screenplay at the time and usually fell asleep on my couch,” he says. “I was woken by a friend’s answering machine message telling me to turn on the television. It didn’t seem real at first. I thought it was a bad joke.”
It was three months until he really felt much at all. “Michael appeared in all our lives in three-month windows, and then there was no call. Even now I get emotional about it.”
As raw as Hutchence’s loss still feels, Lowenstein (He Died With a Felafel in His Hand) insists his loving tribute Mystify: Michael Hutchence should be seen as a celebration of his life and legacy. “You want to leave people with hope,” he says as we sit around the kitchen table at Ghost Pictures, his production offices in a quiet corner of St Kilda. “They know the ending, but you have to have a resurrection. What lives on is not so much the music, but the spirit of the music.”
Debuting at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival before coming home to the Sydney Film Festival, the mesmerising documentary breathes new life into the charismatic INXS frontman who also starred in Lowenstein’s ode to Melbourne’s 70s punk scene, Dogs in Space. Stitched together from hundreds of hours of rare archival material, it encompasses intimate home videos, unguarded interviews and behind-the-scenes footage from the many music videos Lowenstein shot for the band since he was first tapped for 1984 single Burn For You.
Contemporary talking heads are layered over, speaker unseen, in much the same way as Asif Kapadia’s Amy. “We had all this 16mm and 35mm footage transferred into super-sharp digital, and that’s when it started to get really joyous,” he says of the vast wealth at his fingertips. “And then the agony sets in, ‘what am I going to do with all this stuff?’”
One of the first through-lines that lit up for Lowenstein was Hutchence’s relationship with fellow Aussie musician Kylie Minogue. The dorky cuteness of their faxed love letters to each other from separate hotel rooms on tour and the unvarnished intimacy of a holiday video riding the Orient Express together, clearly besotted, are magic. “She’d been around for a few years at that point and we didn’t see her as that young, but once you look at that film, it’s quite startling. There was like a ten-year age gap. She was only 22.”
Reflecting an intense bond, Minogue’s recollections are surprisingly candid. For all the talk of him being the bad boy to her good girl, they were remarkably similar in many ways. “It’s like she’s his alter ego,” Lowenstein offers. “He finally met someone he didn’t have to apologise for going on tour to. She understood that when he got home and had to lead a normal life again, every day around 6 o’clock he’d get fidgety, ‘when’s my sound check?’ He was waiting for crowds of thousands of people, and she understood that.”
Minogue speaks to the all-consuming nature of fame as an addiction of sorts, making mention of Hutchence gifting her one of his favourite novels, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by German author Patrick Süskind. Also heard in an audio clip as Hutchence reads it to his sister, it’s a haunting insight into his later frame of mind, particularly after a terrible one-punch incident in Copenhagen, while dating Helena Christensen, robbed him of his sense of smell and taste. Christensen says the incident changed him irreparably, and Lowenstein agrees. “Michael had some secret parts of his personality, but he never really kept any secrets until that moment, then he had to hide the true nature of his condition.”
For all Hutchence’s swagger, U2 frontman Bono notes he never realised the power of his voice, another call Lowenstein backs up. “He had this charming sense of insecurity, that’s why he was such an enigma.”
That humility also meant that when the unrelenting rigours of touring began to take their toll on Hutchence and the band, they didn’t push back. “They were absolute troopers and kept going,” Lowenstein recalls. “I just don’t think anyone realised the power the six of them actually had if they just got together and put pressure on head office. And I don’t mean be a rock star dickhead, just to demand their rights.”
His most joyous memory of Hutchence was shooting the video for Never Tear Us Apart in then still-Communist Prague in 1988, at the height of the band’s global fame following the release of best-selling album Kick. “It’s the irony of being rich and famous and visiting all these incredible places on tour that you never have time to actually enjoy them,” Lowenstein says, noting that the six-day shoot allowed them that space. “Years and years after, he’d still wax lyrical about Prague.”
Another classic memory involves Bad Seed star Nick Cave. “I took Michael to see The Birthday Party playing in London in 1984 and he was introduced to him backstage and Nick kind of sneered at him,” Lowenstein chuckles. Far from crushing Hutchence, it was perfectly on-brand. “Michael was in seventh heaven. He went outside and was lying in the middle of the road waiting for the cab, which took hours in those days, happy as Larry. Later on they became great friends.”
While Hutchence’s paparazzi-plagued years with Bob Geldof’s ex Paula Yates ended tragically for both of them, in keeping with the spirit of the project, Mystify: Michael Hutchence earned every painful hour in the editing suite for Lowenstein after he spoke to their daughter Tiger Lily. “I showed it to her and there were times she said, ‘oh, I never knew that,’ and that surprised me, because I thought we knew it all, so that was pretty special.”
Richard Lowenstein’s documentary Mystify: Michael Hutchence opens in cinemas on 4 July. You can watch his movie Dogs in Space, starring Michael Hutchence, at SBS On Demand here now.
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