“Mystify” — a portrayal of charismatic INXS singer Michael Hutchence, who committed suicide in 1997 at the age of 37 — makes powerful use of family and personal footage to tell the story of a talented man beset by personal demons, but illuminates the influence of a serious head injury that he hid from the public. The doc premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday night.
Voiceovers from Hutchence’s intimates — family members, INXS bandmates, record producers, managers and girlfriends — along with press interviews, concert footage and home videos, give context to the unexpectedly intimate film. The singer is seen with former girlfriends like singer Kylie Minogue (their relationship gave Hutchence his first taste of tabloid fame) and model Helena Christensen on personal trips on the Orient Express, at beaches and decadent parties in France. More everyday scenes from holidays and other occasions — in the family kitchen with his mother, with his younger brother Rhett — round out the portrait.
In a Q&A following the screening, Australian director Richard Lowenstein, a long-time collaborator of the group’s, acknowledged that the film took some 18 months to edit. He also addressed the choice not to have his interview subjects on camera: “Michael’s really the only talking head in the film. I wanted to immerse viewers in a time capsule,” Lowenstein said, explaining that showing modern interviews would interrupt the ‘80s-‘90s time frame in the documentary.
The film centers around the group’s commercial peak, 1987’s “Kick” — which spawned the hit singles “New Sensation,” “Devil Inside” and “Need You Tonight” — and shows how Hutchence’s powerful voice and songwriting talent were often overlooked due to his pop-idol looks and the group’s upbeat musical stylings.
However, despite his commercial success, Hutchence’s personal life began to spiral amid his destructive and increasingly desperate relationship with Bob Geldof’s then-wife, Paula Yates. It was seemingly the stress and anguish of child-custody trouble — aggravated by drugs found in the London house he and Yates shared with her daughters with Geldof and her child with Hutchence, Tiger Lily — that contributed to his suicide by hanging in a Sydney hotel room. The use of a countdown timeline for his last day lends a harrowing closeness to Hutchence’s rising panic as things go wrong back in London while he’s in Autstralia, and he reaches out to friends with mounting desperation.
However, the film also shows that the sensationalist media reports around his suicide — which was speculated by the tabloids to be “auto-erotic asphyxiation” — may have singled out just one contributing factor. A key turning point in the singer’s life was a 1992 accident that he carefully hid. Out bicycling with Christensen, the pair had stopped for a slice of pizza, which Hutchence was eating in the street. An irate taxi driver shoved the singer and he fell, hitting his head on the curb. Christensen — who, like many other close friends, waited for many years for a comfortable forum to tell their stories — remembers blood leaking from Hutchence’s ears as he lay unconscious in the street. Hutchence woke up in the hospital, and angry and combative, refused to be treated. Nearly immediately, his underlying depression worsened, his rage increased, his memory worsened, and it’s eventually revealed via MRIs that Hutchence’s brain injury had also caused him to lose his sense of smell. All his intimates noticed his increased aggression; his bandmates recall a longtime mate who had lost his sense of self.
The information brought to light in “Mystify” makes it seem likely that Hutchence’s suicide was exacerbated by his brain injury, and possibly Prozac and other prescription drugs found in his system. Equally tragic, although not covered in “Mystify,” was the fate of others after his death: In 2000, Yates died of a heroin overdose at the age of 41, leaving Hutchence’s beloved daughter an orphan at the age of 4; she was then adopted by Geldof and raised with her half-sisters. And while “Mystify” in many ways amplifies the tragedy of Hutchence’s death, it also goes a long way toward explaining and humanizing it.