2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Mystify: Michael Hutchence’

April 26, 2019

by Carla Hay

Michael Hutchence in “Mystify: Michael Hutchence” (Photo by Steve Pyke)

“Mystify: Michael Hutchence”

Directed by Richard Lowenstein

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 25, 2019.

What more can be revealed about INXS lead singer Michael Hutchence that hasn’t already been revealed? There have been several TV documentaries, books and articles telling the life story of Hutchence, who died in 1997 at the age of 37. The surviving members of INXS released a self-titled memoir in 2005. There was even a 2014 dramatic miniseries “INXS: Never Tear Us Apart,” starring Luke Arnold as Hutchence. But the documentary film “Mystify: Michael Hutchence” stands out from the rest because it has something that the other stories don’t have: the participation of Hutchence’s most high-profile ex-girlfriends. Much of the never-before-seen footage in the documentary comes from these women who arguably knew him best, and it offers an intimate look at Hutchence at home and while traveling. The documentary, which features its new interviews as voiceovers only, also has the expected archival footage of interviews, performances and music videos that Hutchence and INXS did over the years. All are expertly edited to maximum effect.

For those who aren’t familiar with INXS, the documentary breezes through the early years of the Australian band (formerly known as the Farriss Brothers), starting with the group’s origins in 1977 and into the early 1980s. The other members of INXS were Garry Gary Beers (bass), Kirk Pengilly (saxophone and guitar) and brothers Andrew Farriss (keyboards), Tim Farriss (guitar) and Jon Farriss (drums). Through steady touring, INXS grew a fan base and broke through internationally in the mid-1980s. By the end of the 1980s, INXS had racked up several hits, including “What You Need,” “Need You Tonight,” “Never Tear Us Apart” and “New Sensation.” The documentary is named after the INXS song “Mystify,” which was one of the hits on the band’s best-selling 1987 album “Kick.” Hutchence, who was the band’s chief lyricist, was undoubtedly the focus of INXS, and his good looks and swagger made him a major sex symbol in his heyday. The band’s sales declined in the 1990s, but INXS is still considered one of the most influential rock acts from Australia.

Like most lead singers of popular bands, Hutchence had solo projects, but they’re mostly overlooked in this documentary. His commercially disappointing “Max Q” album (from 1989) gets some screen time, but his acting career and his self-titled solo album (released in 1999) aren’t mentioned at all. Leaving out Hutchence’s acting projects is a strange omission from this documentary, considering that “Mystify” film director Richard Lowenstein directed Hutchence’s first movie as an actor:  the 1986 Australian rock-oriented drama “Dogs in Space.” Hutchence had a starring role in the movie, and he had a prominent supporting role in Roger Corman’s 1990 horror film “Frankenstein Unbound.”

The “Mystify” documentary has interviews with many of the same people who’ve given interviews about Michael Hutchence over the years, including the other members of INXS; Hutchence family members Rhett, Tina, Kell and Patricia; former INXS managers Chris Murphy and Martha Troup; music producer Chris Thomas; and Michael’s longtime friend Bono, the lead singer of U2. Because of the interviews with Michael’s ex-girlfriends who had serious relationships with him, “Mystify” probably has the largest participation from his loved ones and business associates of any Michael Hutchence biography so far.

Michael came from a broken home—his parents Kell and Patricia split up when he was 15—and the following year, he, his mother Patricia and his older half-sister Tina moved to Los Angeles so Patricia could pursue a career as a Hollywood makeup artist. (They eventually moved back to Australia after less than a year in Los Angeles.) The move to L.A. has often been described as a turning point for the Hutchence family, because Patricia and Michael had secretly planned the move for months, and when they abruptly left the rest of the family behind, including Michael’s younger brother Rhett, it permanently altered the family dynamic. (Kell died in 2002. Patricia died in 2010.)

When Michael’s parents were together, they lived in Hong Kong, and often traveled. All of this family background—which has been described numerous times in biographies about Hutchence, including the “Mystify” documentary—probably explains why Hutchence had a wandering spirit and was deeply conflicted about fame. He and people close to him often described him as having two different personalities—extroverted and confident in public; introverted and insecure in private.

But most of Michael’s former girlfriends haven’t spoken about him extensively for biographies. “Mystify” is the first Michael Hutchence biography to have the participation of Ananda Braxton-Smith (who dated Michael from 1978 to 1980, before he was famous); Michele Bennett (who dated Michael from 1982 to 1987); pop singer Kylie Minogue (who was with Michael from 1989 to 1991); supermodel Helena Christensen (who was his partner from 1992 to 1995); and a woman only identified as “Erin,” who had a secret affair with Michael for a few years before his death. Photos of Erin that are in the documentary show her to be a pretty brunette who resembles a young Bennett.

All of them talk about the two sides of Michael, and how he opened up to them about his deepest fears and insecurities. Minogue is perhaps the most candid, as she details how they got together, how they broke up, what was right about their relationship and what was wrong. Some of the things shown in the documentary are home videos of them nearly naked while on vacation somewhere, as well as love notes that the couple used to fax to each other. The documentary even reveals the aliases the couple would use when they had to send messages via hotel faxes: Minogue was “Gabby Jones” and Michael was “Swordfish.”

Christensen shares fond memories of living the high life with Michael in the south of France, where they would often spend their days and nights going to different friends’ homes to eat and party. An avid reader, Michael also liked to share and read aloud from poems and books. The “Mystify” documentary includes an audio recording of him reading an excerpt from a novel that fascinated him: “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.”

Michael, who never married, was romantically involved with TV host Paula Yates from 1995 to 1997. Their daughter Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily (also known as Tiger), was born in 1996. Yates died of a heroin overdose in 2000, but when she and Michael were together, she was in a bitter custody battle with ex-husband Bob Geldof over their three daughters. The custody battle was a major source of stress, and it’s often been mentioned as a trigger for the circumstances that led to Michael’s death, which was officially ruled a suicide by hanging. The documentary includes a chilling timeline and testimonials detailing the last 12 hours of his life.

A considerable amount of time is spent in the documentary talking about the devastating brain injury that Michael suffered in Denmark after getting into a fight with a taxi driver in 1992. During the fight, Michael was pushed onto a sidewalk, his skull was fractured, and he lost his sense of smell and taste. Christensen describes in vivid detail about how he refused to get immediate medical treatment for the injury, and was frequently in denial about how bad the injury was.

The documentary has several testimonials from people who reiterate what other biographies have revealed: Michael’s personality drastically changed after the brain injury—he was easily angered, he began to suffer from severe bouts of depression, and he became more dependent on drugs. Toward the end of his life, he was abusing alcohol, cocaine, Xanax and heroin, according to his close confidants. Even though there have been theories that Michael accidentally died of auto-erotic asphyxiation, the “Mystify” documentary comes to the definite conclusion that his death was an impulsive suicide that was triggered by his depression, his brain injury, the stress of the Yates/Geldof custody battle and drug intoxication.

“Mystify” is the first documentary about Michael Hutchence that was made for the big screen. It’s the best way to experience this stellar film, which does justice to a larger-than-life talent that was taken away too soon.

UPDATE: Fathom Events will release “Mystify: Michael Hutchence” for one night only in select U.S. theaters on January 7, 2020.