A Conversation With Richard Lowenstein (“Mystify: Michael Hutchence”)

To say that Mystify: Michael Hutchence was a labor of love for director Richard Lowenstein is sort of an understatement. Lowenstein was close friends with the INXS singer for more than a decade, directing many of the band’s videos and casting Hutchence in the lead role of his 1986 film, Dogs In Space. That connection lends Lowenstein’s immersive documentary an intimacy that could only come from someone in Hutchence’s inner circle. 

Available for streaming now and out on Blu-ray and DVD via Shout! Factory on March 31, Mystify takes a long-awaited deep dive into the ascent and demise of one of the great frontmen in rock. Making the most of footage from Hutchence’s home movies and those of his intimates, Lowenstein captures the charismatic artist’s larger-than-life persona while honing in on his sensitivity, his intellect and his fitful indifference toward the trappings of success. The second half of the film artfully sucks viewers into a five-year downward spiral touched off by a violent assault that robbed Hutchence of his senses of taste and smell, culminating in his suicide in a Sydney hotel room. Ultimately, Mystify is a celebration of life, surrendering itself to the journey of its protagonist and bypassing the innuendo surrounding his 1997 death.

MAGNET touched base with Lowenstein via Skype from Melbourne, Australia, a mercifully safe distance from the fires still burning farther north.

How are you holding up over there? The coverage I’ve seen of the fires has been horrible.
It’s quite devastating—10 percent of the country has burned. We’ve had some terrible apocalyptic days of smoke down here, with acid rain and mud falling from the sky. But fire wise, we’ve escaped. 

How has Mystify gone over in your country?
It’s been brilliant. The cinema release was one of the top-five documentary grosses of all time here. It’s also opening in 50 cinemas in Germany, and the French and the Italians are doing releases. It’s really striking a chord around the world, which is great.

You don’t have to be a diehard INXS fan to appreciate the story.
It’s a study of an individual and the trials and tribulations of getting through a career as a pop star. In pop, it’s all about looking and being young, as well as having a hit record. I did try and make it a universal story. And in lots of territories, INXS has been forgotten about, so I did want it to speak to a younger generation who knew nothing about Michael.

So many Australian bands never had INXS’s enormous success in the United States. Why?
At the time, it was extremely rare for an Australian band to do genres of music other than classic pub rock. INXS infused dance music and R&B into a sort of white pop. They took their influences seriously. They didn’t do it in a superficial way like many of the post-punk bands coming out of England at the time. On top of it, you’ve got someone who’s not just a good performer but a great performer. Michael had this humility about him—he wasn’t pushing some arrogant pop-star Oasis image. He was one of those classic sexual icons girls love, but there were just as many working-class blokes who saw him as fantastic. It’s like he presented a feminine side they couldn’t express.

And INXS was hardworking band.
They were determined to break territories like America and Europe by touring there at a young age. As soon as they were filling 1,000-seat pubs here, they were doing college tours in America for their (1982) Shabooh Shoobah album. That really gave them a grassroots international appeal. They weren’t just hoping for a number-one hit—like Men At Work. But after (the success of 1987’s) Kick, management got incredibly lazy. I remember being around Michael post-Kick and hearing him say, “Where’s my manager? Probably out playing polo somewhere.” The focus went from touring to writing a hit song. I think that was a huge mistake. 

When did you first meet Michael Hutchence?
We met on the set of the “Burn For You” video, which was the first one I did for them. They rang me a week before I was to go to the Cannes Film Festival with my first feature film (1984’s Strikebound), and I told them we could talk when I got back. They were like, “We’re here now—just grab your cameras.” They were in Mackay, this low-rent Florida-style beach town in Queensland. Because we were these pale punks, their manager put us into this hotel to protect us from the sun. Later, they led us out of the hotel and there were these five or six bronzed Australians with mullet haircuts lounging by the pool with their beautiful girlfriends next to them. The middle one with this extra-long mullet got up, came over, double-shook my hand and said, “Hi. I’m Michael,” with this big genial grin. Within 24 hours, we were all snorkeling together off the Great Barrier Reef, living the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle and filming as we went along.

A week later, when I was at Cannes, INXS were playing in Nice, and Michael appeared. He ended up staying up all night partying and coming along to one of my meetings with an Australian producer the next day. It wasn’t going well, so I stopped my pitch and said I had this other film about a bunch of hippies and punks living in a house in Melbourne—and Michael was the lead. He looked up from his semi-asleep position at the table and said, “Am I?” I said, “Yeah, you’re the lead.” Pretty much from that point on, we became firm friends. I didn’t expect more INXS videos, but they just kept rolling in. I also knew a whole lot of people Michael idolized, like Nick Cave. He just loved him and the artistic credibility he had.

What were some of the revelations that came up as you were making Mystify?
It took about two years to make the film once we got funded, and five years of preparatory work before that. I literally spent the first year panicking that I didn’t have the footage I needed. I kept telling investors I had amazing stuff, but I was actually lying. Then, when money started coming in, I started going through my old tins of film. I sent it off to the laboratory to get scanned, and every few days, the lab would ring me up and say, “You won’t believe what we found.” The [footage of] Kylie [Minogue] and Michael on holidays was in those tins. I couldn’t understand how 20 minutes of Michael and Kylie got amongst my music video rushes. I’d totally forgotten.

Michael wanted a hand-wound 16mm Bolex like mine, so I bought him one, and he started filming his private life. But he didn’t know how to process the film, so he’d bring it back to the next video shoot and throw it at me. I’d get him a VHS and keep all the 16mm footage. It was like some kind of divine intervention.

Welcome To Wherever You Are, the last great INXS album, came out in August 1992, the same month Hutchence had his violent run-in with the cab driver in Copenhagen. That was a pivotal year for both him and the band.
Michael had started getting very confused about grunge. The band was in danger of being labeled an anachronism, and I don’t think the record company knew how to reinvent them for the ’90s, which is what U2 did so successfully. When it came to the accident, Michael would never let the truth get in the way of a good story. He told some people he fell off a bike in Thailand. (Ex-girlfriend) Helena (Christensen) was the only witness, and as soon as I heard her description—the blood coming from his nose and ears—I knew it was serious. There was an incredible amount of bleeding in his brain that wasn’t treated.

The film does an effective job of addressing Hutchence’s death without dwelling on it.
The most important thing for me was to look at all the things leading up to his suicide like a detective would. The autoeroticism rumor didn’t start until about six weeks after he died—there was no mention of it before then. We accessed the full coroner’s report, and there were two really large areas of brain damage that put him at an unusually high suicide risk. The medical evidence was really clear that he was at risk for three reasons: He hadn’t slept in over 24 hours; he was incredibly drunk, with only tiny traces of recreational drugs; and he had two walnut-sized areas of traumatic head injury. The experts said it was like a perfect storm. It’s not a suicide where you write a note—it happens like a snap decision. If you can get through that half hour, you most likely won’t even recognize your own actions. No one knew that information, so it was important for me to get it out.

Mystify was Michael’s story, so once he stopped breathing, I didn’t think it was the right thing to show funeral footage. Knowing Michael, he would’ve hated his own funeral. There was all sorts of media bullshit going on. The only thing he would’ve liked was Nick Cave playing “Into My Arms.”

—Hobart Rowland