Why the new Michael Hutchence doco had to be sad
IT'S the film that currently has a 100% critical approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and now Mystify: Michael Hutchence is coming to Splendour in the Grass.
The documentary explores the troubled heart and soul of Michael Hutchence, lead singer and songwriter of INXS, through home videos and interviews with those closest to him including former girlfriends Kylie Minogue and Helena Christensen.
Director Richard Lowenstein talks about his earliest memories of his long-time friend, why he didn't go down the musical biopic route and what he hopes audiences take away from the documentary.
Q: What is your early memory of Michael Hutchence and what can you tell me of the kind of friendship/work relation you guys had?
A: Two weeks before the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, I get a phone call from a strange character by the name of Gary Grant from a management and publishing company called MMA. He has heard that I do film clips and wonders if I'd be interested in doing one for an Australian band called INXS. I began to say that I'd never heard any of their records, hadn't liked what I'd seen and since I was leaving for Cannes we wouldn't have the time for pre-production, let alone shooting and editing. He butts in with, 'But, we're ready now! Just grab your camera and catch the next plane for Queensland and you can finish the rest in London after Cannes'. This sort of naivety you just can't argue with. And so three pale, skinny little figures in black from the drizzle and rain of Melbourne ended up face to face, under the Queensland sun, with the bronzed rock band from Sydney, including one mullet-haired Michael Hutchence... A couple of months later, after partying in Cannes together and with extra footage shot in London, this all finished up as the Burn For You music video and led to 13 years of creative collaborations and friendship.
The creative relationship was one of mutual belief in each other's areas of expertise to a point where my treatments for each music video got to be scrappy affairs where trust was of crucial importance, especially when he was acting in Dogs In Space.
Q: One reaction I received from people watching the film was that it wasn't as uplifting as the Freddy Mercury and Elton John 'fantasy biopics', which surprised me as yours was a doco and those weren't but people seemed to expect something similar. When i watched it I heard comments about the film being very sad. Is that the burden of the documentary as a genre? The weight of true life?
A: A fictionalisation such as Bohemian Rhapsody and/or Rocketman allows the filmmakers or studio to glamorise and homogenise the cinema experience so that the dilemmas of things like becoming HIV positive can be made into an easily digestible sequence that isn't too "sad" or "real" or confronting to a mainstream audience. It can gloss over and candy-coat these real life tragedies along the lines of the pre-set formulas of mainstream narrative cinema which we respond automatically to. Then the "uplifting emotions" can be created and manipulated by all the magic that big budget Hollywood-style cinema can muster, with recreated and fiercely controlled imagery by the world's leading actors, directors, cinematographers and sound designers. These are not authentic emotions and these are not authentic sequences. They are a series of pre-programmed "triggers" that we are used to responding to via a lifetime of watching formula TV and cinema.
An intimate documentary that shows a real person undergoing real-life dilemmas is another thing entirely. We find it sad because it is sad. It is real life and our hero is not acting or wearing makeup in order to portray a facsimile of a drama that we can subconsciously protect ourselves from real feelings with. They are living real life right in front of you. You can see their happiness and their tragedy in their face and their eyes and it can sometimes be very confronting, especially when we spend our lives watching sugar-coated entertainment. We can always defuse the ultimate sadness by reminding the audience of the uplifting moment's in our hero's life via showing them at the peak of their abilities at the end of our story, but ultimately it is sad because it is real and that is the gift of documentary, not the burden.
Q: Those interviews with some of the women in Hutchence's life, when were they made and how hard was it to get them?
A: My personal relationship with Michael and his girlfriends made it easier to achieve the level of intimacy and trust in our interviews that we felt was essential to an honest telling of the story. I needed the trust and support of those who had been close to Michael who had never spoken before and the most important of these were his girlfriends, friends and relatives. Most of these people trusted me from the friendships we had back in the day. We recorded most of the interviews in the last two years of production, although some were done as early as 2009.
Q: Why are most people not on camera when they are talking?
A: I didn't want the interviewees faces seen so that we, the audience, could remain in Michael's world and travel back through time with him and experience what he was experiencing without having the contemporary faces and 'talking heads' of our narrators pulling you out of that immersive and emotional experience by yanking you forward in time to the present day.
Q: What reaction have you received from the other members of INXS after watching the film?
A: They loved it and were very emotional after the private screening we arranged for them.
Q: Younger audiences will now have another reason to get to know Hutchence and his music. Do you think Australia will now finally honour him they way we should have always done?
A: I think the film works on a variety of levels. It works as a much needed recorded of a renowned figure in both Australian and international musical history and the film is also a fable that takes you on an involving, intimate and dramatic journey no matter whether you aware of Michael's work or not. Audiences have always been interested in the lives of the cantors, travelling minstrels, musicians and singers because they expose themselves on stage in front of an audience and live brave, insecure, raw and sometimes tumultuous lives, whether they are successful or not. Their path is not always an easy one emotionally or physically and it is often very difficult to sustain a consistent and sustaining human connection through it all. Overall I hope that the audience will will take away some insights and a greater understanding of the spirit of an artist and all that it entails.
- Mystify: Michael Hutchence screens at the Splendour Forum this Sunday, July 21, at 2.30pm. 'That Movie Guy' Marc Fennell will also be in conversation with Mr Lowenstein this Sunday at 11.30am.