A glorious celebration… and a revelation

'Mystify', the new film about the life and death of INXS singer Michael Hutchence, directed and written by Richard Lowenstein; reviewed by Wendy Lloyd.

Michael Hutchence was the beguiling lead singer of Australian rock band INXS and an archetypal rock star of the 80s and 90s; celebrated both for multiple international hits and a string of famous girlfriends. Consequently, when he died by suicide in a Sydney hotel room in November 1997 following a seemingly rapid descent into excessive drink and drugs, his premature demise was dismissed as mere rock ‘n’ roll cliché.

Now, Hutchence’s long-time friend and collaborator Richard Lowenstein sets the record straight with this documentary comprising wall to wall archive footage of the performer both on stage and in private. Overlaid with present day audio of those who knew him best, the approach highlights Hutchence’s provocatively sensual persona: whilst others talk about him, you watch him, re-establishing his obvious appeal.

Charming footage of Hutchence and a fresh-faced Kylie Minogue ecstatically in love is particularly moving, as present-day Kylie reminisces about their relationship; sharing the hedonistic highs, agonising lows, and a poignant honesty about his profound effect on her.

Inevitably, a dark side is revealed, including a childhood with arguably narcissistic parents. Explanations are noticeably incomplete regarding Hutchence’s departure to the US as a child with his mother when brother Rhett was left behind. These three years abroad are strangely brushed over, but there is an implication that Hutchence’s all-consuming love affairs, and their pattern of dramatic and upsetting demise, are connected to lasting childhood turbulence.

Yet whilst these familial travails hint at underlying demons, the key bombshell is saved until towards the end (though it has been heavily discussed in the media since the film’s Australian release). In 1992, whilst out with then girlfriend Helena Christiansen, a taxi driver knocked Hutchence to the floor, injuring his head. Although Hutchence immediately attended hospital, he insisted on leaving; and with doctors apparently putting his aggression and slurred speech down to drunkenness, he was released. He then spent a month in Christiansen’s flat bed-bound and vomiting before agreeing to a brain scan.

This, then, is the crux of the film that transforms Michael Hutchence’s story from self-indulgent drug addled rock star, to victim of a neglected traumatic brain injury (TBI) – and about which he insisted Christiansen tell no one. The accident, and the subsequent diagnosis of anosmia, which manifested as a 90 per cent loss of his sense of taste, and complete loss of sense of smell, was made public at the time; the actual extent of his TBI, however, was only known to him and Christiansen. Those around him witnessed his changed personality, increased aggression and depression – but had no idea that a TBI was implicated.

The incident took place before the first guidelines for managing severe head injuries were issued by the US Brain Trauma Foundation in 1996, but enough was known about TBIs in 1992 to mean this film arguably raises more questions than it answers: would Hutchence’s prognosis have differed had he remained in hospital that fateful night? Did he fully understand the connection between his injury and his changed behaviour and what, if any, help did he seek? Furthermore, could the subsequent death of Hutchence’s partner Paula Yates have been prevented had she had a better understanding of his injury and its impact on his mental health? Though this is not revealed in the film, according to Lowenstein, when neurologists and psychologists were shown Hutchence’s unedited coroner’s report, they had no doubt that his TBI was implicated in his eventual suicide. Yet Yates never knew this, and it was reported at the time that she refused to believe it was suicide. Instead, her assertion that Hutchence died from an autoerotic activity gone wrong helped cement his death as something sordid rather than tragic.

Twenty-two years is a long time to wait before reshaping the legacy of a man who has arguably been dismissed as just another live-fast-die-young rock star, but there’s no disputing the significance of this film’s insight regarding Hutchence’s decline. Arguably, however, there are two films here – a glorious celebration of Hutchence the magnetic rock star, and a revelation regarding his accident and subsequent decline that cries out for further scrutiny. Indeed, the film might have been extended to accommodate more analysis of this. Nonetheless, Mystify is a moving tribute to a man whose TBI induced mental health issues – and their significance to his life story – were tragically unknown until now.

Reviewed by Wendy Lloyd who is a film critic, psychology graduate and MSc student at LSE www.wendylloyd.com

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