The ’80s will forever be known as the decade of overindulgence and unabashed carnality. Everything took on a bright veneer, almost blinding in its imagery, and music led the way. With the advent of MTV, music and visuals were no longer separate entities, but melded into one aesthetic. Suddenly, androgynous rock stars were crawling out of your television set, draped in lace and thick makeup, with dance moves that made Elvis and Robert Plant look tame. Among the unlikely rock stars that emerged from this heap of glamorous trash was a shy kid from Sydney, Australia, with curly bangs and large almond eyes named Michael Hutchence. The singer and his band INXS took the world by storm at what felt like the perfect time. It was 1987, near the end of an era, when the band’s sixth album Kick sold nearly 60 million copies, thrusting the young Aussies into the public eye around the world.
Unlike other chronicles of the band, the new documentary Mystify: Michael Hutchence (which came out last year in Australia and the UK, and is now available on Prime and Tubi streaming services in the U.S.) attempts to deconstruct the famed singer’s life and death, positing both into a relatable human framework. When the singer took his own life in 1997 at 37 years old, his fans were completely confounded. To this day, it seems like the music world hasn’t made sense of his premature demise. Even now, as we hear INXS on classic rock radio, we’re forced to ask, “What happened to Michael Hutchence?”
Director Richard Lowenstein, who also helmed most of INXS’ videos, approaches his subject matter with a pensive curiosity versus journalist slant, with those closest to Hutchence to narrating their stories over a collection of archival material, including home videos, television interviews and concert footage. The incredibly frank commentary by family members, bandmates and former partners, such as model Helena Christensen and pop singer Kylie Minogue, paints a portrait of a highly insecure man who not only struggled to accept genuine love, but was also unprepared to deal with the burden of fame.
For critics, INXS was not an easy band to categorize. They were like U2 without the politics (not to mention, a healthy dose of hormones). Like their Irish compatriots, INXS came from a post-punk background, imbuing their New Wave sound with funk-inspired guitar riffs, sharp drumbeats and straightforward rock tempos. But what truly distinguished INXS from their peers was the libidinous charisma of Hutchence. In their videos, which were as popular as their songs, he was always an arresting figure. Whether heartbroken and trudging along a foggy bank in Prague or maniacally dancing against a white backdrop, for a moment in time, Hutchence was the most charismatic and sexiest singer in rock & roll. Onstage, his talent was undeniable. He was a mixture of unabashed glam rocker and shy “alternative” songwriter. He moved like a serpent, constantly writhing in leather pants or a matador’s costume, before falling on the ground and staring into the heart of his audience with a look that was both curious and insatiable. Offstage, he couldn’t be more different. In interviews, he was introverted and sweet, almost innocent.
Attempting to fit a lifetime in a couple hours is a tough feat and Mystify mostly succeeds. We follow Hutchence’s story in a nonlinear format. Starting from a fractured upbringing by two socialite parents in Australia, to his unexpected fame with INXS, before delving into his disappointments with failed side projects and romantic relationships and then reaching an apex with a disturbing incident involving a cab driver which caused the singer irreparable brain damage. Hutchence’s life unraveled quickly from there. His downward spiral included a high-profile, destructive relationship with Paula Yates (the controversial TV host and ex-wife of rocker and activist Bob Geldof), nasty remarks by the press labeling him a “has-been” (including a surprisingly ugly slight by Oasis’ Noel Gallagher at the British Music Awards) and continuous haranguing by the British tabloids. Additionally, to his friends, the end for Hutchence wasn’t just fraught with health issues, but psychological struggles that seemed to bubble to the surface.
Although it’s a bit of a mishmash of grainy videos and media footage, the journey is always engaging. Unlike a lot of music biographies that tell you how to feel, Mystify gives its audience the space and wherewithal to put the pieces together. For years, the media reported that Hutchence’s death was due to an accidental hanging during erotic asphyxiation; a rumor the film — maybe curiously to some — doesn’t acknowledge for a moment. Instead, Mystify implies that Hutchence always struggled to understand or accept “love.” At one point, when asked about his greatest fear, he says, “I think to be without one love in your life… to be lonely.”
Ultimately, Hutchence is a complicated figure and even this film can’t convey every facet. Instead of looping so much footage of Hutchence on vacation with girlfriends and family members, one wishes Lowenstein used the time to illustrate the trajectory of INXS’s rise to fame. One minute, they’re a struggling punk band in Australia, the next moment, they’re gracing the cover of Rolling Stone and playing arenas. Albums like Shabooh Shoobah and Listen Like Thieves aren’t even mentioned. These albums weren’t just staples of early-’80s New Wave, but instrumental in cementing Hutchence’s public image as a unique vocalist. In order to know the man, it would’ve helped to know more about the music too. Lowenstein also cuts away from live performances too quickly. Throughout the movie we’d like to saturate in Hutchence’s prowess and talent for more than a few seconds. Even so, Mystify is an unexpectedly heartfelt, powerful film that examines an appealing and intelligent introvert who entertained in excitingly extroverted ways but somehow allowed the limelight to swallow him whole.