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Mystify: Michael Hutchence

Cards on the table before we start. I was never a fan of corporate stadium rock band INXS, nor of their preening singer. I am certain that this collection of archive footage, home movies and interviews with friends and family contains much more of interest to people who have a stake in the band and in Hutchence.

We start with Hutchence’s early life living on the front line in the Hong Kong Hilton, son of the manager of a company that imports champagne and a model. As he hits adolescence, many interviewees tell us how well-read he was, and we are given the usual signifiers from the reading list of a tortured artist. These include Hesse, Ginsberg and Wilde, and we can only assume that the reference to The Catcher in the Rye got lost in the cut.

An ex-girlfriend recalls how eager the young Hutchence was to namedrop Sartre, Camus and Existentialism because “he thought they sounded good”. And yet the closest he comes to actually voicing an opinion about literature is when he tells an interviewer that Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles is “good”. (Then again, maybe he just got the interviewer he deserves. She accuses him of being pretentious for using the French title. Here’s a secret: the book has the same title in English and French).

In among the endless clips of friends telling us how thoughtful and intelligent he is, we see a clip of Hutchence moaning that the press don’t take his writing seriously and just want to talk about his looks. Later on in the film, when asked how many of his songs on the new album are about sex, he replies “oh, most of them”.

We hear little more about Hutchence’s ideas (or lack of them) as what the film is really interested in is asking his mates and ex-girlfriends how great he was. So, Kylie Minogue explains how she has to forgive him for breaking her heart, and many others step up to talk about a depth of character that we rarely experience from Hutchence himself. On a couple of occasions, Bono is rolled on, as if to remind us that Hutchence was never the most irritating egotist in music.

There is nothing wrong of itself in this approach. The old interviews do show Hutchence exuding charm and charisma, and some of the old home movies – of 1987 Prague before die Wende or of a trip on the Orient Express with Kylie – are genuinely interesting. And yet the main part of the film seems to be to settle a score, which is not really possible, given its closeness to its subject.

Two incidents are particularly thrust into the forefront – an unprovoked attack by a Danish taxi driver which caused serious brain damage, and the press coverage of Hutchence’s relationship with Paula Yates. The case for the defence is that Hutchence was an innocent victim in both cases, and that his downfall can be entirely attributed to the malign acts of others. I mean if Noel Gallagher calls you a has-been on live tv, there must be something deeply wrong, right?

Now the story that we are told is a point of view which could, and should, be given an airing, but virtually no other possible interpretation is even considered. So, we are told that Hutchence was minding his own business when the taxi driver asked him to move, and then just attacked him for no reason. This may well have been the case, but given his propensity for acting like an entitled dick in other situations, I wouldn’t take it as gospel just because that’s what his ex-girlfriend remembers.

The very public affair with Yates is covered in much more detail. Again, Hutchence is portrayed as the wronged innocent, even in the cases where he obviously must share some blame. A brief Have I Got New For You clip shows Ian Hislop taunting Yates for Hutchence’s tendency to beat up press photographers. This is never mentioned again, presumably because it tends to skewer the intended narrative.

Now I neither know nor care who did what in the love triangle between Hutchence, Yates and Bob Geldof. And I am sure that the British press played a pernicious role. Yet to whine that they printed lies about his drug use while explaining how the situation caused Hutchence and Yates to increasingly take hard drugs seems a little inconsistent at least.

This is not to suggest that Hutchence and Yates were necessarily at fault. More that their possible culpability is not even considered. So we hear plenty about how shocking it was when Geldof sued for custody of both of his children and the egregiously named Tiger Lily, daughter of Hutchence and Yates. We hear much less about whether he may – or may not – have been justified.

Shortly before the end, we hear a news report that the coroner could not rule our suicide as being the cause of Hutchence’s death. That’s it, no more. Yet even someone as uninterested in the whole drama as myself knows that the news reports at the time were full of reports that he died from sex game-related auto-asphyxiation.

The film can’t have it both ways. Either this tittle tattle should be of no interest to those not directly involved (a view I tend to share) – in which case there is no point in telling us anything about a relationship between  two apparently dull individuals. Or you say that it is important to expose press lies, in which case you must play the ball not the man. You can’t disprove an allegation by not even mentioning it.

Mystify is directed by an old friend of Hutchence, and it shows. We are allowed no distance, no suggestion that other views are even possible. This may be fair enough for fans who just want a hagiography of their beloved singer. But that would be marketing, not the serious journalism that this film claims to be.

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