Twenty-two years have passed since INXS frontman Michael Hutchence died, and while songs like “Never Tear Us Apart,” “New Sensation,” and “Need You Tonight” remain staples on classic-rock radio and at karaoke clubs, the band has had a difficult time moving forward. Despite putting out two records with different singers and launching a TV competition to find a new vocalist (Rock Star: INXS aired in 2004), Hutchence’s shadow has loomed large over the band. That’s because the singer boasted an unmistakable voice and a unique presence, not to mention a shy offstage personality that fueled fans’ curiosity. His talent is irreplaceable.
Now Mystify: Michael Hutchence — a new film by the late singer’s friend, Australian director Richard Lowenstein — attempts to tell his story through grainy home video and photos that the frontman left behind. The film, which comes out digitally and on-demand this week, presents an intensely personal portrait of Hutchence using archival interviews and new commentary from his onetime partners Helena Christensen and Kylie Minogue, his bandmates, U2 frontman Bono, his siblings Tina and Rhett Hutchence, his stepmother Susie, and producer Nick Launay, among others. It shows how his spark for creativity worked in INXS and in his failed Max Q side project, reveals the heavy pressures of fame that weighed on him, and explores how a violent attack on him changed his life. Here are 12 things we learned.
1. Michael’s family was surprised he wanted to be a frontman because he was so introverted.
Tina Hutchence, Michael’s half-sister, recalls a time when she was managing the kids’ wear section of a department store and needed Michael and his brother to participate in a fashion show. His brother, Rhett, was a natural but Michael, who was nine or 10, was reticent. She had to push Michael out in front of the audience. “All of a sudden, he walked out and he [saw] the people, [and] his face changed,” she recalls in the film. “He started enjoying himself. He started winking at me. It surprised me because he was a shy kid. … When he said he was going to sing with this band, that just surprised the heck out of me. Here’s this kid who didn’t want to walk into a room full of people, let alone sing.”
2. When it came to making music, he was a natural.
In the early part of INXS’ career, Hutchence loved recording. “He was always the first person to arrive at the studio,” producer Chris Thomas says in the film, as “What You Need” plays. “He was really watching everything. He was the one who had a real idea of where things should go. He really did have an instinct for the whole thing. I was learning stuff from him. He wrote most of the top lines for those songs, the actual tune that the singer sings. He wasn’t just writing words; he was writing melodies.”
3. He felt he had to compartmentalize himself to manage fame.
When the band’s Kick album became a sextuple-platinum megahit, Hutchence had to get over his innate shyness quickly and figure out a way to navigate all the attention. “From the fantasy to the reality of, ‘Oh, this is actually happening,’ that would be really tricky because I wasn’t that comfortable with it,” Hutchence says of fame in one scene. “So I sort of invented that [big] persona with the necessity of getting through it. I enjoyed it but I had to create something that kept me inside as well.”
4. He impressed Bono greatly.
“I remember asking Michael what his definition of rock & roll was,” the U2 singer recalls of his late friend in a reverent tone. “He said, ‘Liberation.’”
5. The way he picked up Kylie Minogue was incredibly corny — but it worked.
In the doc, the “Loco-Motion” singer recalls how she met Hutchence around 1989 and asked him how he took care of his voice. He told her he had “magical drops for your throat” that he used and would be willing to share with her. Shortly after their meeting, she had to go to Hong Kong for her own career. He asked to take her to dinner there but made her wait. “Eventually he rocks up two hours late,” she said. “He takes me out and there’s clearly something between us.” She later forgot all about the secret potion and he ended up courting her, flying to visit her on different parts of her Asian tour.
6. When Michael’s mother decided to leave his father, she took Michael with her but left his brother, devastating the family.
When the INXS frontman was about 14, he and his younger brother Rhett returned home from school to find that their mother, Patricia, had packed up their things. In the words of Tina, “Michael was the chosen one.” Patricia told Michael to pack his bag, and they went to the States together, with Rhett crying at the airport, and stayed there for a year and a half. Patricia says in the film that she’d asked Michael in advance if he wanted to come with her and that he’d said yes. “He kept it a secret, as I did,” she says. “Michael knew that he was going.” Michael’s personal manager, Martha Troup, said that it was a decision that haunted Michael. “It just tore him apart,” she says. “He felt that he didn’t deserve the success. He felt guilt.” Rhett was raised by about seven nannies in the time Michael and Patricia were away. He says that Michael returned with a new sense of self.
7. He lost his senses of smell and taste after a taxi driver knocked him out.
His onetime partner, model Helena Christensen, remembers an incident in Copenhagen in 1992 when they got pizza and rode home on bikes. They stopped to eat, and a taxi driver told Michael to move, got out, and punched him with enough force to send the singer to the ground, knocking him unconscious. “There was blood coming out of his mouth and ear,” Christensen recalls. “I thought he was dead.” When he came to in the hospital, he was belligerent and insisted on being dismissed. He was laid out for a month and eventually a surgeon found he had a skull fissure and that his nerves were torn; he had lost his olfactory senses as a result. “He did not want me to tell anyone,” she says. “He didn’t even want me to tell my parents. … Things just got really heavy in his head.” His bandmates noticed he seemed different, more aggressive, when they began work on 1993’s Full Moon, Dirty Hearts.
8. The attack seemed to change everything for Hutchence.
Bono recalls how Hutchence had confided in him that he felt different after the attack. “I think he was very, very traumatized,” the U2 singer says in the film. “He confessed to me that it changed everything for him. What was just a sweet insecurity became a deep insecurity. He kind of lost his way and forgot who he was.”
9. He fell in love with grunge, much to his bandmates’ disappointment.
During the making of Full Moon, Dirty Hearts, his interests strayed from the typical INXS sound. “He was just very erratic in his behavior but also in what we were trying to do musically,” guitarist Kirk Pengilly says. “He certainly had gotten sucked into the grunge thing. There was a lot of times where he’d stop everything and go, ‘Hey, listen to this. This is what we’ve got to be doing.’ So I had huge arguments with Michael over that; he was trying to make it a lot more ‘not INXS.’”
10. Noel Gallagher stomped on Hutchence’s spirits.
At the Brit Awards in 1996, during a time when INXS’ popularity had waned, Hutchence presented Oasis with a trophy for “Wonderwall.” In his acceptance speech, guitarist Noel said, “Has-beens shouldn’t present fucking awards to gonna-bes.” Hutchence walked off with a bit of swagger but looked hurt. “That crushed Michael,” Troup recalls in the film. “That was devastating, that moment in his life. They were massive worldwide and to go completely the other way was really hard on them and really hard on Michael.”
11. Michael’s tumultuous relationship with TV host Paula Yates weighed heavily on him.
Hutchence linked up with Yates, the wife of singer and activist Bob Geldof, in the mid-Nineties; she had interviewed him for her TV program. They had a daughter together, but the relationship turned sour after opium was discovered in Yates’ house and Geldof filed for divorce. A friend of Hutchence’s, identified only as Erin, shares diary entries she wrote when she was age 20 in the doc. In September 1997, she wrote, “Michael phones me and says Paula has tried to commit suicide. I asked how he was, and he said, ‘I’m weird in the head.’ I said, ‘I bet.’ He said, ‘No, you have no idea. You don’t know what I’m going through. You don’t understand what’s going on in my head.’” At one point he asked her if she was worried he’d kill himself, to which she said yes. He assured her that wasn’t going to happen.
12. Hutchence was in a good mood in the days before he died by suicide, but he began to spiral when Yates said she couldn’t see him.
INXS were in Australia, rehearsing for a tour, and Yates had told Hutchence she was coming to visit with Hutchence’s daughter and her kids from Geldof’s marriage. But on November 22nd, 1997, she told him the visit would be postponed until December, due to issues with Geldof. Hutchence called Geldof and begged him to allow Yates to travel. He called his friends and managers to tell them how upset he was that he wouldn’t see his kids. “But it was more than that,” Troup says. “He was confused about where he wanted to be, himself, in life. I went back to the office, and I heard a message. He was just really angry. He said, ‘Martha, I don’t give a shit anymore.’” But his anger turned to desperation in later phone calls. His body was found in his hotel room around noon that day. The doctor says that the coroner ruled a few months later that Hutchence had died by suicide.