Mystify

Intended as an affectionate tribute, Lowenstein’s documentary about the late frontman of INXS is obfuscated by reverence.

In 2018, sisters Rose and Kate Lilley, daughters of the late writers Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley, both released books that dealt with the sexual abuse they experienced in the 1970s, which was perpetrated by men, mostly artists, who frequented their parents’ house. The revelation was not only that the abuse occurred, but that it was in part facilitated by their mother in the name of a bohemian lifestyle. Public responses varied. Many were shocked, some even calling for the renaming of the Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript which is awarded by UWA Press (the prize kept its name) and some criticised the sisters for bringing their mother’s name into disrepute. In an illuminating article in Meanjin, Jane Jervis-Reid argued that the insights offered by Rose and Kate ‘further a reader’s understanding’ and that they did the literary community a favour by ‘ask[ing] the public to see Hewett in her full complexity.’

Complexity is a loaded word in the wake of the #metoo movement. As the tally of male artists accused of misconduct towards women (and, in some cases, towards children) continues to grow, audiences and fans have had to find a way to accommodate their horror and distaste towards their beloved artist’s behaviour alongside the adulation of their art. This process of reckoning also encompasses broader questions relating to character, creativity and moral boundaries. If the #metoo movement has highlighted anything- other than the prevalence of the abuse of women – it is that unadulterated adoration should not be confused with artistic appreciation. Placing an artist on a pedestal precludes a full exploration of their personality, influences and output, and closes off the possibility of reckoning with the darker side of their character.

And yet, adulation is exactly what Richard Lowenstein asks of viewers in his recently released documentary Mystify. Lowenstein was friends with Hutchence, having directed him in both music clips and in the film Dogs In Space. In an interview with Junkee, Lowenstein revealed that when Hutchence died:

“I knew one day I’d have to do something that gave him the respect and credit that he was craving along the way.”

Thus, it seems that from the outset, Lowenstein’s mission was to cement Hutchence’s reputation as a performer and artist, and to rehabilitate his image as an intelligent, sensitive and loyal figure who deserves admiration rather than ridicule. Eschewing the reminiscences of Hutchence’s fellow INXS musicians, Lowenstein instead hones in on those who knew him intimately, including the band’s former manager, siblings and former girlfriends. Nary a cross word is uttered and no recriminations are broached. Helena Christensen, Hutchence’s partner from 1991-95, assures us that though Hutchence loved women, he was also a committed partner. Kylie Minogue tearfully recounts their doomed relationship, but does not appear to harbour any bitterness.

The film points out that Hutchence wanted to be admired for being an artist, and claims that, at times, he resented the public perception that sex appeal was his defining trait. We are reminded that he wrote melody for INXS songs in addition to lyrics, and his first serious girlfriend, Michele Bennett, discusses his penchant for referencing Sarte and Camus in conversation. But Hutchence’s evolution from a shy child who got beaten up at school to a major international rock star remains hazy. His fellow members of INXS don’t provide commentary, appearing only in footage of performances or as references in a third person’s commentary. This is an odd directorial choice given that the film seeks to recast Hutchence’s legacy as his talent- surely fellow band members would be those most able to shed light on his creative processes.

While talent is hard to quantify, the lack of focus on Hutchence’s output renders the music a side question, and his essence is instead put down to charisma. The film is a constant montage of footage from interviews, performances and video clips interspersed with private footage taken by friends and family that has not previously been released. There are many scenes showing Hutchence smiling down the lens, but the expression of his mouth often sends a different message to that of his eye contact; his lips curl in a bashful half smile, as though he is resisting his audience but still wants them to believe he is being intimate with them.

Then, in one scene, the illusion falters. In an interview, Hutchence reveals he has not seen an audience for fifteen years. By refusing to wear his contact lenses during performances, he protected himself from stage fright. This reminded me of the late Lauren Bacall, whose famous “look”, interpreted by audiences as a sultry stare, was later revealed by her as a stance that allowed her to control her nerves. Charisma lends itself easily to mystification and mythology, and it is the role of the biographer to avoid being trapped in its fog. Lowenstein, conversely, makes no serious attempt to reckon with Hutchence’s darker life experiences. There is no investigation into his drug use, or even a clear stance on whether he used drugs, though NSW police have publicly claimed that they found drugs in the hotel room in which he died. The glimpses into his bouts of melancholy are frustratingly general, with the audience left to infer that he bore the scars of his parents’ dysfunctional marriage and his eighteen-month separation from his younger brother when his mother took him to America as a teenager. And surely there is a contradiction crying out to be acknowledged in a man who wanted to be regarded as an intellectual but who nevertheless called his only child Heavenly Hiraani Tigerlily, a decision that, at the very least, could be characterised as a lapse in judgement. When done properly, exploring the grey areas of an individual’s motivations and life choices can make for gripping viewing, but Lowenstein’s failure to cut through makes it unclear whether Hutchence tried to mythologise and obscure himself, or whether he genuinely possessed a complex personality that remains hard to pin down.

The film briefly edges towards a more complex exploration of the singer as it turns to the brain injury that Hutchence suffered as a result of being assaulted by a taxi driver in France in 1992. This incident caused him to lose his sense of smell, and those around him witnessed the emergence of a more volatile personality which at times veered towards the pathological. Dr Rachel Herz, a neuroscientist who specialises in the psychology of smell, provides commentary on the deep sense of grief that an individual can experience as result of losing their sense of smell. But as there is no suggestion Dr Herz ever treated Hutchence, her words are speculative rather than illuminating. Commentary from Kylie Minogue about his love of the book Perfume, by Patrick Suskind, is clearly meant as an attempt to illuminate the value Hutchence placed on his sense of smell, and Minogue alludes to Hutchence’s pursuit of a sensual lifestyle more broadly, but like his reported penchant for Sarte and Camus, this remains a superficial point.

It is possible that some of the issues with the documentary stem from negotiations and compromises Lowenstein had to enter into in order for the film to be made at all. Lowenstein had to strike deals with friends and family in exchange for their personal footage of Hutchence, and some individuals retained the right to veto the use of the footage. Hutchence’s daughter, for instance, requested changes to some a scene that she argued showed Hutchence in a negative light. Lowenstein clearly judged that the project was worth these compromises, however it all adds to the sense that his overall project was to rehabilitate Hutchence’s image, rather than to genuinely reckon with the full complexity of his approach to art and life. In the absence of nuanced reflections on his creativity and influences, what we are left with is happy snaps and lovers’ recordings. For those with a critical eye, the mystification remains.