“If you’re sitting in a dark room without cameras then it can feel like being in a therapy session.”
NME is halfway through our conversation with filmmaker Richard Lowenstein, who is telling us about the moment when he finally sat down with model Helena Christensen to discuss her relationship with the late Michael Hutchence for the first time ever. The Danish supermodel was with Hutchence when he was attacked by a taxi driver in Copenhagen in 1992, which left the INXS singer with life-changing brain injuries.
That moment proves to be one of the most emotional in Lowenstein’s new documentary Mystify, which examines how Hutchence escaped small-town Australia to become one of the most magnetic rock stars on the planet during the 1980s. The film also takes a look at the darker side of fame too – and examines the idea that Hutchence’s suicide is inextricably linked to the injury he suffered on that one fateful night.
Having directed videos for classic INXS hits such as ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ and ‘New Sensation’, Lowenstein explains here how he finally told the story of Hutchence’s life, some 20 years after his death.
What side of Michael did you want to portray in the film?
“I just wanted to portray it as I’d seen it. It was getting to a point where it was 20 years since he’d passed away. There was a mini-series and rumours in the tabloid press about how he’d gone and what he was like when he was alive. As a personal friend, I knew that if I didn’t put it down as I saw it, then no one was going to. A group of us close friends had been talking and thought ‘y’know it’s insane that there’s been no respectable chronicling of his journey and yet every other rock-star on the planet gets different things.”
How much of a mammoth undertaking did it prove to be? The film is rich in home videos and footage from Michael’s past.
“I didn’t think it was going to be all that hard, but it turned out to be a five year journey of incredible difficulty. I really didn’t think I’d have any problems from band or management or record companies, and I was not expecting it.
“At times, I was ready to give up. At the same time, I’m not religious but things fell into place in such a way that you begin to question your atheism. Things started happening that were remarkable – like that Kylie interview. People on the good side had faith in me and the story I wanted to tell. It was at that point that good things began to happen.”
The film’s examination of Michael’s relationship with Kylie Minogue is one of the most significant moments – how did you manage to secure her involvement in the first place?
“We had been friends back in the Michael days, and we’d spent a fair bit of social time together, we went on holiday to Michael’s villa in the south of France. We hadn’t kept in contact for 20 years, so I put in the normal request with her management, expecting her to be friendly but guarded.
“But Kylie is renowned to be an incredibly lovely person and always has been. Within ten minutes of the audio-only interview in a dark studio, she just felt safe and we knew each other and she’d seen the film’s pitch trailer. She had this belief and faith that we were going to do something from an honest and an authentic position.”
There are various stories about her handing you intimate footage too?
“Yes! I’m like, ‘are you insane?’ The tabloids will go mad. If the wrong people get their hands on this it could go crazy.
“I was taking this footage on the aeroplane and felt like I should have a briefcase handcuffed to my wrist. What if I was to leave it above the seat? She was just incredibly trusting and a completely wonderful person. I don’t think the film would have been the film if it wasn’t for her and her faith. I can’t say enough.
“She was willing to tell all sides too – the drugs, the sex and the painful break-up. We had an agreement to show her section to see if there was anything she wanted to take out and she just said ‘No, you’ve done that bit beautifully’.”
There’s also the candid interview with Helena Christensen too, who was with Michael when he was assaulted by a taxi driver in Copenhagen in 1991 and left him with life-changing brain injuries).
“She didn’t have the video footage, but she had the experience of what happened in Copenhagen. She’d never spoken about it because Michael was swearing her to secrecy, and she chose to honour that for a long time after he passed away.
But to give her credit, she sat down and said ‘I think’s it’s time to tell the full story of what happened.’
What was that like? She’s sitting there and telling the story of how Michael’s life changed on that one fateful night?
“It’s incredibly emotional. If you’re sitting in a dark room without cameras then it can feel like being in a therapy session. There’s tears, laughter and I’m there feeling like I have to keep it together like a shrink does. At times, you’re trying to piece it together and you do feel like Sherlock Holmes.
“I was going into the film without any belief in the gossip surrounding Michael’s death, but I was going in with the premise that it was linked to his loss of taste and smell after the assault – which he told me a lot about. It was what led him into manic depression. Helena’s conversation was a game changer, I suddenly realised that there was so much more to it. Michael would sit down and burst into tears when he told me about losing his senses.
“He’d say he got whacked, but he would never give me the true story and would never have given anyone the true story about the brain damage he suffered.”
To that end, you discovered the coroners’ report which revealed that Michael was suffering from frontal lobe damage at the time of his death.
“I’d been to see a taste and smell specialist who features in the film, and we were drawing lines about between Michael and other people who’d lost their taste and smell and taken their own lives.
“We had this thesis that we’d been building up alongside the Helena interview, but it wasn’t conclusive. We accessed the coroner’s report in the last few months of the edit, and it had been under lock and key up until that point. This was the full 180-page report and I only skimmed through it without noticing anything significant because I’m not a doctor.
“But I gave it to a professor of neuroscience at Melbourne University and I get this phone call in the middle of the night going, ‘You know he was seriously brain damaged? Look at the size of this lesion. This means that this is not something small. He was hiding something really big.
“A professor of neuroscience called me in the middle of the night going, ‘You know he was seriously brain damaged?'”
“Suddenly, everything fell into place. Michael’s personality had dramatically changed over a period of two to three months when I was working with him, which was either side of that accident. I always thought something was a bit wrong. as opposed to Michael’s story of, ‘Oh I had a bump on my head and I thought it might have been concussion.’
“You’d see glimpses of his old personality, but Michael would also be doing arrogant and egotistical things you’d never expect him to do. It wasn’t a result of fame, because that had been five years earlier.
“But a lot of people saw those actions and then put them into the cliched stereotypes of rock star behaviour where you go ‘that’s what rock stars do’. In a way, that’s part of his downfall. If that was your neighbour doing it, you’d suspect something’s wrong. But when a rock star does it, you just think they’re like Metallica or whoever it is.
“You just think it’s an arrogant rock-star who has become too big for his boots. You think they’re just a rock star and you walk away. What he really needed was medical attention and therapy.”
Michael was aware of the injury, but he swore Helena to secrecy. Why do you think he was so reluctant to get it checked out?
“He had an MRI in Paris which proved the brain injury, because he knew that something was obviously wrong. But I think there was a hell of a lot of personal and professional pressure at that stage of his life and career. One of the very obvious pressures is writing a hit song. If your five other band members look at you like, ‘We know you’ve got brain damage’, they’re not going to ask you to write a song. They’re going to say, ‘You stand there singing and we’ll write the hits’.
“He didn’t want to be a singer-performer, he was very proud of his songwriting abilities and, as so often happens in the pop industry, he wrote those hits in five minutes, those hits of the ’80s.
“It was 1992 now, grunge had appeared and Oasis were starting to make waves. He’s got the band saying write us another hit, so he’s not gonna sit there and say ‘by the way, I’ve got a walnut sized lesion on my brain’. He wanted to be respected and he always had trouble with his band being respected, it came out in his diaries.
“But in this case he didn’t want any chinks in the armour and for anyone to put him on the sidelines and say ‘we’ll write the songs for ya’.
You touched on Oasis. There’s a scene in the film that shows Noel Gallagher calling Michael a “has-been” after he presented Oasis with the best video BRIT for Wonderwall in 1996.
“That was an incredible humiliation for him. At the time he brushed it off, but we have footage of the party later that night and he was totally plastered and totally raving about it. His personal managers and all the people close to him too, they were basically saying that he was totally devastated, as is mentioned in the film.
“Being called a has-been by Noel Gallagher was an incredible humiliation for Michael… He loved the new bands, he loved Oasis and Pearl Jam, and he was desperately trying to evolve INXS with these new sounds that were coming out.”
“You can get down on Oasis, but they’re young and egotistical at that stage. You think you’re going to be the next Rolling Stones, but you don’t realise it’ll happen to you in 10 years.
“There’s no compassion there, it touched upon a very sensitive nerve. He’d had his accident, it was the mid-’90s, some six years after the hits. There was this pressure to get back to Number One again, and a lot of bands had to reinvent to survive.
“It’s a very difficult thing and INXS were at that point where everyone was saying that pretty-boy rock wasn’t relevant any more. They had two directions – can we go upwards like U2 or can we follow the Duran Duran path and become strange anachronisms?
“Michael loved the new bands, he loved Oasis and Pearl Jam and he was desperately trying to evolve the whole band with these new sounds that were coming out.
“He wanted to go back and rediscover. Then this bonk on the head happens and he can’t think clearly.”
The film also examines the darker side of Michael’s childhood too. There’s the implication that he was racked with guilt after moving to America as a child with his mother, leaving his younger brother behind.
“Absolutely. He felt guilt about his success. Hanging around Michael, you sensed that it was never a case of him breaking up with people – it was like was saying “all this fun we’ve been having, it’s over now. He felt guilt over every break-up because it brought back memories of his parents’ divorce and their break-up.
“When he got successful he’d feel the guilt of leaving his brother and it just seemed to be everywhere.
“Going back into his diaries, we’d find evidence of the guilt – it wasn’t just all happy-go-lucky rockstar. There was always problems being presented.
“His break-up with Michele (Bennett, his childhood flame), he was utterly torn between this women he loved and how their lives were going in so many different directions. That’s why it inspired ‘Never Tear Us Apart’. ‘Kick’ had gone to Number One and suddenly there’s this kid-in-a-candy store mentality – he was travelling around the world and thought he’d never settle down.
“There was the hedonistic side to him, but always an almost catholic sense of self-flagellation too.”
Are there any stars that remind you of Michael in 2019? To my mind, there’s a similar sense of charm and magnetism in The 1975’s Matty Healy.
“I can certainly see it in the guy from One Direction, Harry Styles. A lot of people mistake long hair for Michael Hutchence, but there’s Aidan Turner too – who could’ve had that cheeky seductiveness.
Harry Styles was mentioned when the project was potentially going to be a biopic, but that interest pulled out when the film changed further in the journey.”
Mystify is out now in UK cinemas.