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“Mystify”: Capturing the Aura of Michael Hutchence and INXS

Michael Hutchence

A recently released documentary entitled Mystify provides a glimpse into INXS frontman Michael Hutchence’s short but captivating life. If you’re an INXS or Hutchence fan, it’s worth the watch. The film takes the reader from Hutchence’s youth in Australia but spends most of its time on his goings-on during the band’s heyday.  The biopic was written and directed by Richard Lowenstein, who was a close friend of Hutchence’s and a director of many of INXS’ music videos.

As a recap, the Australian group went from local sensation to worldwide fame in a dizzyingly short time. They continued to crank out hits for over a decade, only to slow down with the untimely death of Hutchence.   And we say “slow down” because unlike other bands that have lost key members (I’m looking at you, Led Zeppelin!), INXS lost the person who gave them their unique sound but they were still able to continue (picking up a temporary lead singer through a reality TV contest).

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The band began as “The Farriss Brothers”, named after three of the founding members, keyboardist Andrew Farriss, who was high school friends with vocalist Michael Hutchence, drummer Jon Farriss, guitarist Tim Farriss, and finally saxophonist Kirk Pengilly. They formed INXS in 1977 and released their first album Underneath the Colours in 1981 in Australia. They found local success and were noticed by American label Atco Records. This led to their first US album Shabooh Shoobah in 1982 and their mega-hit “Don’t Change” and the slightly-less-but-still-mega hit “The One Thing.” A follow-up album The Swing (1984) recorded with funkmaster Nile Rodgers yielded some success with the song “Original Sin”, but the song laid the groundwork for what came to be the INXS sound.

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It was Listen Like Thieves (1985), Kick (1987) and X (1990) that gave us classics like “What You Need”, “Listen Like Thieves”, “Need You Tonight”, “Never Tear Us Apart”, “Devil Inside”, “New Sensation”, “Mystify”, “Suicide Blonde”, and “Disappear.” Their last significant album was Welcome to Wherever You Are (1992) which included the relative hit “Bitter Tears.” As the band struggled to keep their sound unique, they invited Ray Charles to participate on their album Full Moon, Dirty Hearts (1993) on the song “Please” and Chrissy Hynde on the same album for the title song. Elegantly Wasted (1997) was the last album with Hutchence on lead vocals and resulted in a small hit in the title song.  Sadly, on November 22, 1997, during a world tour for Elegantly Wasted, Hutchence committed suicide at age 37 in his hotel room in Sydney, allegedly due to arguments he had with ex-girlfriend Paula Yates about being able to see their daughter Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily. Beyond the personal loss of such a talented performer, the band lost a huge part of what was their unique sound and style.

Mystify includes a number of vignettes retold by close friends of Hutchence, including Kylie Minogue whom he dated for a short time.   It reveals that Hutchence suffered brain damage when he was shoved to the ground by a taxi driver while on vacation with girlfriend Helena Christensen and this led to his loss of smell. It may have contributed to his often feeling isolated, and his bouts with depression.  His extended family provides interesting background on Hutchence’s youth. Born Michael Kelland John Hutchence, he grew up in Sydney, Australia as part of an extended family but they moved around constantly until they settled back in Sydney. He attended high school with the Farriss brothers —  and you know how all that went.

In the late 1980s, with Ollie Olsen (soundtracks for Dogs in Space and Whirlywind) he formed an electronic band “Max Q” that released one self-titled album that went gold in Australia. The documentary gives you a peek at two music videos created for the songs “Way of the World” and “Sometimes” by that group.   It reminds us that Hutchence was a talent outside of INXS and that he could produce snappy hooks without the Farriss brothers.

It’s often hard to capture and document what contributes to a superstar’s talent and mystique and making that relatable to the average person. Mystify does a reasonably good of doing just this while including information that those of us in the US may not have been exposed to. The documentary makes one wonder where INXS would have gone had Hutchence stuck around, and where Hutchence would have gone as well. He was already dabbling in acting, and early in his life wrote poetry. Mystify reminds us that for many of these talented, unique individuals, their aura and mystique is closely wrapped in addictions, personal losses and struggles with depression. We’re the unwitting benefactors of the personal demons that clung to Hutchence.

-Will Wills

Photo: Michael Hutchence/Getty Images

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Will Wills — a native-born Italian, raised in the US — does a killer impersonation of Mario (“a-letsa-go!”). Generally, you’ll find him frenetically bouncing between software development at a large US firm, leading a local dance/pop band, playing COD and watching MST3K. Yes, he’s sleep deprived, but you can follow his resulting incoherence at @WillrWills or his band at @WillsAndTheWays or his blog, "A Day in a Monkey's Life," if you’re suffering from insomnia, too.

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