Film and Book Reviews

Michael Hutchence documentary has the gravity of Greek tragedy


By Tim Kroenert

July 8 2019There’s a sequence in Mystify where Michael Hutchence, charismatic frontman of the world-conquering Australian pop band INXS, orates an eloquent summary of Patrick Süskind’s 1985 novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. The novel concerns a perfumer, Grenouille, who engages with the world primarily through his remarkable sense of smell. It culminates in a scene of mass debauchery in the streets of Grasse, France, triggered by a perfume that Grenouille has created.

Süskind’s text was, evidently, seminal for the renowned hedonist Hutchence. But there’s also a tragic prescience to the moment that emerges as the film’s story of Hutchence progresses. Years later, Hutchence would suffer a brain injury during a violent altercation with a Copenhagen taxi driver. The event precipitated a decline in his emotional and mental health, in the years leading up to his suicide in 1997. Significantly, it caused him to almost entirely lose his sense of smell.

Taken together, Hutchence’s rumination on Perfume and, later, the recounting of the Copenhagen incident and the permanent effect that losing his sense of smell apparently had on the singer’s wellbeing, demonstrate how the film transcends the mere transmission of biographical detail. Its title, tellingly, is Mystify (named for the INXS hit), and not Demystify. Through its use of human detail, it manages to both explain the enigma Hutchence was, and fortify the myth he has become.

This mythologising is an effect of style as much as substance. Mystify has a stream-of-consciousness atmosphere that belies the meticulousness of its crafting. It includes audio from new and old interviews with those who knew Hutchence, as well as performance, news and home video footage. Disembodied voices from today drift across images from the past, each interviewee’s identity and relationship to Hutchence imparted via subtitle, almost as an afterthought.

Between the footage and the voices and the subtitles, it amounts to a lot of data to process. Repeat viewing or a pre-existing knowledge of Hutchence and INXS’s history would help with properly parsing it all. But it’s a film to be experienced as much as to be “read” (big-screen viewing is highly recommended); a rock and roll portrait with the gravity of a Greek tragedy, centred on one of the most fascinating, complex and compelling frontmen in the history of popular music.