RICHARD LOWENSTEIN ON 'MYSTIFY - MICHAEL HUTCHENCE' (PART 3 OF 3)

Richard Lowenstein is the Australian filmmaker behind motion pictures STRIKEBOUND (1984), DOGS IN SPACE (1986), SAY A LITTLE PRAYER (1993), and HE DIED WITH A FELAFEL IN HIS HAND (2001), and the documentaries AUTOLUMINESCENT (2011) and ECCO HOMO (2013). Lowenstein is also one of the music industry's most brilliant promo video directors, working with the likes of INXS, U2, Pete Townshend, Hunters & Collectors, Cold Chisel and Crowded House. His latest film is MYSTIFY – MICHAEL HUTCHENCE (2019), a documentary celebrating the INXS frontman. As well as being a close friend of the late singer, Lowenstein collaborated with Hutchence on numerous promo videos and live films, both for INXS and Hutchence's solo projects, including the groundbreaking and influential INXS videos What You Need, Need You Tonight and Never Tear Us Apart. Lowenstein also cast Hutchence in the lead role in his vivid recreation of the Melbourne punk era, DOGS IN SPACE. MYSTIFY – MICHAEL HUTCHENCE seeks to show a more accurate picture of the complex, warm-hearted talent, and explain the circumstances that led to his all too young death. In the third part of a three-part interview, I spoke to Lowenstein about what whether he thinks he can finally say goodbye to Michael after making MYSTIFY; whether he believes that Michael's suicide was simply the result of him being 'stuck in  moment'; whether making the film led to Lowentsein reflecting upon his own mortality; what he made of Michael's close friendship with U2's Bono; what he thinks Michael would have thought of MYSTIFY; why he thinks Michael was able to remain close with his ex-lovers, and whether he feels life has an element of Greek tragedy to it given Michael's fascination with the Patrick Biskind book Perfume had echoes with his own tragic death.  

Parts one and two of the interview.  

You sadly never got the chance to say goodbye to Michael. Do you think with this film you were able to finally say goodbye to him?
I definitely think there's a sense of closure in making a statement with the film. I knew there were injustices going on with his legacy. I was at the funeral home with his body and everything, and it all seemed so alien and bizarre. In a way, I guess my desire to make a feature film or a documentary or whatever was me floundering about how I could pay him back, how could I actually say goodbye in a way that has resonance, not just for me. As Ollie Olsen says, he changed our lives by offering us these jobs, and we feel like we owe him, his family, his friends, his fans, the people that know nothing about him, and Australian music history, an accurate portrait. Otherwise, everything that he was railing about in life, about not being respected, was going to happen.

I gave the band and their unbelievably terrible management twenty years to do the right thing. Then I just sat back and looked particularly at what the management were responsible for, and I said to myself ''I can't let this happen. I've got to enable Michael's story and legacy be told without it being exploited for selling back catalogue or whatever. '' Some things are more important than money. Michael was so down and furious about his music being used for TV commercials when he was alive and I believe he would still feel like that today. And yet I'd see his voice being used in Target commercials and the like. Classy stuff. So I decided he was alive. ''Somebody's got to do the right thing for this guy that had helped me so much, because nobody else was doing it ... '' It's definitely good to know that I did the right thing.

Looking back at how Michael died, would you agree with Bono that he simply got ''stuck in a moment he couldn't get out of''?
It's my understanding, after speaking to the psychiatrists and neurosurgeons for the film, that this is how suicide works: it's spontaneous, it's very rarely planned, with long, explanatory notes and everything. He absolutely wasn't planning a suicide. He was on the phone to his ex-partner Michele, begging her to come and be with him. He was always terrified of being alone in a hotel room. That's why he never wanted to be the last person left in his hotel room. He wanted you to to just sit and talk through the night. But in this spontaneous burst of irrationality, he couldn't even wait the half hour it would take for Michele to arrive and come sit with him.

It was a real ''fuck it all'' moment that the shrinks and the specialists would tell me about from all their discussions and research with the ones that survive. They told me that spontaneous suicide was like this sudden explosion of everything, where you're not really thinking about the situation or the daughter or partner you're leaving behind. It's just like a fit or a spasm. It's no coincidence he was calling his manager and saying ''Fuck it, I've had enough. I can't take it anymore. '' They said if you can get through the suicidal spasm, or if someone is there to talk you down, often the person is embarrassed about what they might have done, and never try again. It's a short circuiting of the brain, the frustrations of his life exacerbated by the symptoms of the traumatic head injury (TBI), the lack of sleep (which they could tell from his hotel phone records), the depression, and the excessive drinking (there was a tiny residue of drugs in his blood but a seriously large amount of alcohol). When my specialists saw the doctors I talked to saw Michael's autopsy report and the size of his head injury, and the size of the two lesions in his head, they were in shock, and said ''I can tell you from past experience, I can almost guarantee that he killed himself ... ''

Watching the film made me look at my own mortality. Did making the film have the same effect on you?
I'm always ruminating on mortality and my own mortality in particular. There's part of the Peter Pan in both Michael and I. Neither of us really settled down and had normal nuclear familiy situation. We both grew up in a Bohemian world and tried to retain that in a singular manner throughout our lives. I'm not in a profession that's so dependent on youth, but the pop music world is similar to the model world in that there's an insane obsession with being talented, young and beautiful. Not necessarily in that order. Being a great performer was a skill Michael perfected through hard work, but the youth, beauty, energy and stamina that everyone gushes about all have a use-by date. You may feel you're reaching your creative peak in your mid-thirties, only to find that the pop music industry is far more interested in the next fresh-faced, young, talented thing that is coming along, and the recording contract you're offered begins to look more like a pension plan than anything else. At the time when other artists are just hitting their prime, as personified by the Oasis comment, you're seen to be an old man. It's kind of like an advanced mid-life crisis because you're only 35 and the world is looking at you as a has-been, unless you can do what very few performers like the Rolling Stones or U2 do and somehow keep pumping out the hits, and looking cool in their videos. If you make money for people, then no-one seems to mind and the sycophancy continues, but if the hits and cash influx starts to fade, suddenly you're considered too old and a has-been, and people start looking the other way. It's a bit like having a contract with a vampire.

Michael loved the new bands coming up like Nirvana and Oasis, but he was definitely feeling like it was a young person's game, and wondering ''How the hell am I gonna transcend this?'' If he hadn't had had his traumatic head injury, I believe his intelligence and his love of art and everything would have shown him the way, much as it did with U2, to move forward and survive the 90s. All of my research into the effects of these two walnut-sized areas of brain damage tells me that he wouldn't have had a hope of traversing all the dilemmas of surviving the 90s grunge era as an 80s funk-based band and staying relevant. He wouldn't have had a hope of surviving and dealing with all of that and the head injury as well. Michael had an increased sense of his own mortality going on well before he should have. You can see that in his interviews. The ''27 Club'' and ''Shouldn't you be dead by now?'' was much discussed. Male mid-life crises should happen when you're 55, not 35.

The sad thing is that INXS and Michael probably would have risen again because it's all cyclical. They just have to wait it out. Even U2 have had periods when they were considered less relevant.
Absolutely. U2 were not only incredibly lucky, but incredibly clever. In the 90s, they survived grunge and were very relevant and played huge stadiums. But what other band was able to do that?

What did you make of Michael and Bono's friendship?
Nick Cave said that he was jealous of Michael's audience and performing abilities, and Michael always said he was jealous of the creative respect Nick got, and his songwriting and creative capabilities. I think it was a similar thing with Bono and Michael. Bono was a very successful artist and a great onstage performer who got a lot of respect, but he's not a classic rock performer like Michael. U2 are a great band, and Bono and The Edge have an incredible relationship that drives everything along. Michael was desperate for this, but he didn't have it on the same level with Andrew Farriss. Andrew and Michael were a great songwriting duo, but were like chalk and cheese as people, which is perhaps why they drifted apart in values as they got older, which made it very hard to create together and allow that innocent magic to happen again. Edge and Bono are two like-minded people that just get each other no matter how old they are. I think Michael and Bono connected through their shared experiences, but they were also envious of what the other had in a very friendly way. They were very close.

I read that Bono still expects Michael to jump over the fence in his property in Nice when he goes there for the summer.
After Michael's funeral, I stayed with Bono and others at Bono's place in Eze, and one day we broke into Michael's house there and had a little wake for him with champagne in the olive groves etc. It was good to be there with Bono at that personal wake since I had been the catalyst for bringing them together on U2's Desire shoot and then again on the Lovetown tour in '89. They might have bumped into each other before that, but they hadn't met properly.

What do you feel Michael might say about MYSTIFY?
Well, I hope he'd be very proud. I think he would love the fact that the full story of the Max Q project has finally been told. I think he'd love the fact that, even though he kept his secrets, the reasons for his decline and demise were shown to be medical reasons and not just him getting too big for his boots or becoming a victim to the rock star cliché. I think he'd love the honesty of his story being told in a respectful way in which he's not just going down in history as an anachronism of the 80s. I think there was a danger of him being remembered as a one album hit wonder, and I certainly came across that attitude in the making of this film. I think he would be incredibly thrilled that publications like the NME came out and embraced the film. The NME was INXS's enemy for the entire 80s and to be nominated for an NME Award for Best Music Film and to have a rave review from them is something he would have liked more than anything else.

It said a lot that in the film, nobody had anything bad to say about him - especially the women, considering his 'love them and leave them' image. In fact, he seems to have stayed friends with all his exes.
Yes, and a lot of them weren't clean breaks either, if you get what I mean. As a Bohemian, I think he loved the concept of an open relationship, especially when he was young. He was pushing the idea of an open relationship on his very first girlfriend. It's hard to quantify how he remained on good terms. Certainly when he broke up with women there were grudges and upsets, and like most of us, he wasn't into confrontations. He'd just leave and sort it out later. There wasn't anyone that we could find who could say ''He treated me selfishly'' There were a lot of people saying that in his last two years he was very aggressive and would lose his temper and snap, but that was a result of his accident and TBI which very few knew about.

There was one time when I remember clearly that something was wrong with Michael. It was sometime in 94, after the accident, and the bar in Michael's hotel was closing. We were leaving to go upstairs, and there were all these fans shouting ''Michael! Michael!'' etc and holding out things for him to sign. He waved at them and said ''Fuck 'em'' out loud. I followed him upstairs thinking ''Wow, that's weird. I've never seen that before. '' Then when you find out all the things about his condition, it all makes sense, because this wasn't the Michael I knew. The Michael I had known for ten years would have been out there signing autographs and making them all feel great, even for the hardcore fans out there at 3 in the morning when he was coming back from a bar.

In the documentary there's a parallel between the events of the Patrick Biskind novel Perfume, a book Michael loved, and the tragedy of Michael permanently losing his sense of smell and taste following the accident. Do you believe life has an element of Greek tragedy to it?
Unfortunately I do believe that Zeus was up there watching and decided to take away what Michael loved the most, for no other reason than spite and envy. My mother was a writer and died of Alzheimer's disease. Tim Farriss, the INXS guitarist, lost a finger in a fishing accident, and he can't play anymore. I grew up reading the Greek myths, legends and tragedies, and it's just uncanny that it was Michael's most loved senses that there were taken away from him – his senses of taste and smell and his cognitive abilities. There's something weird going on out there … Zeus was and still is an arsehole! It's Faustian. Robert Johnson and The Devil down at the Crossroads kind of shit. No wonder people dreamed up religion. The coincidences are just too bizarre to be coincidences ...

Mystify: Michael Hutchence is available on disc and digitally. The trailer.   

You can read about the work of Lowenstein and his production company here.   

Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2020. All rights reserved.