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'It all played out like a Greek tragedy': the truth about Michael Hutchence's tragic death

Michael Hutchence in London, 1990
'He would talk about art until 4am': Michael Hutchence in London, 1990 Credit: Getty

A bold new film recasts INXS star Michael Hutchence as one of rock history’s most misunderstood characters – and reveals how one night in 1992 set him on the road to ruin

The story of Michael Hutchence is one of the saddest in rock’n’roll. In his Eighties glory days, as the frontman of slick guitar band INXS, he was the golden boy of Australian rock: a sexy, charming performer who conducted wild romances with some of the world’s most desirable women, including Kylie Minogue and supermodel Helena Christensen.

But over the next decade, everything fell apart: the band nosedived into obscurity and Hutchence became embroiled in a soap-operatic affair with the British television celebrity – and wife of Bob Geldof – Paula Yates, with whom he had a child. On Nov 22 1997, ahead of an INXS tour of Australia, Hutchence was found dead in his Sydney hotel room. The coroner’s verdict was that he had hanged himself while suffering from depression and under the influence of alcohol, cocaine, Prozac and other prescription drugs. He was 37. Yates died of a heroin overdose three years later.

Such is the dismal narrative arc of Mystify: The Story of Michael Hutchence, an intensely personal new documentary made by his friend Richard Lowenstein, an Australian director. Yet, by employing extremely intimate footage and interviews, this affectionate portrait achieves something miraculous: it restores to Hutchence his spark and dignity and shows how well loved he was by so many of those who crossed his path. It also suggests that the real cause of his descent into suicidal despair was not drugs, debauchery or ego, but rather a brain injury sustained years before in an unprovoked assault by a cab driver. “It all played out like Greek myth and tragedy,” says Lowenstein, summing up Hutchence’s life. “There was a bit of Oedipus, Narcissus and Icarus in there. And then Zeus strikes him down with a thunderbolt, for no reason.”

I met Hutchence in 1990 backstage at the now-defunct London Arena. Extremely lithe and almost intimidatingly handsome, he was easy-going, uncomplicated company. At that time, he was dating Minogue and joked that he’d “certainly done a good job of corrupting her”. He compared his feelings about stardom to the reaction of a hungry man served an anchovy-topped pizza, where “you don’t like anchovies but you’re forced to eat the whole thing”. Asked to explain how INXS had gone from what he called “a bunch of guys in a garage playing music” to a million-record-selling band performing to massive crowds, he shrugged. “That part is always a mystery: how did I get here?”

Lowenstein, who met Hutchence while shooting a music video in Australia in 1983, recalls how Hutchence “had an honest, no-bull---- charm that made you drop your pretences and just be real”. The two became close friends, collaborating repeatedly over the following 14 years, and taking the occasional holiday together. “He wasn’t a debauched character at all,” says Lowenstein. “My enduring memories are sitting talking about art and politics until four in the morning. He certainly liked the sensual pleasures of life, but it wasn’t orgies and drugs and classic rock star clichés… until the very messy end anyway. And I wouldn’t even call that debauchery. By then, he was a lost soul.”

Paula Yates interviewed Michael Hutchence on The Big Breakfast in 1994 Credit: Alpha Press

Mystify combines home videos and photographs supplied by Hutchence’s family and friends, with thoughtful interviews from bandmates, lovers, colleagues and siblings. “When he died, there were so many nasty stories,” says the singer’s older sister, Tina Hutchence. “Now people can see for themselves. Michael was sweet, talented, he was a good person. The film gives him back to us.”

Hutchence was 17 when he first formed a band with friends in Sydney in 1977 and soon found local success. By 1987, they had become INXS and broken through internationally with the album Kick, which sold 20 million copies and spawned four global hit singles: New Sensation, Never Tear Us Apart, Devil Inside and Need You Tonight. Moving away from their new wave roots, they locked on to a slick dance rock sound that capitalised on their frontman’s raw vocals and magnetic stage presence.

But, says Lowenstein, stardom sat uneasily with Hutchence. 
“It’s very hard to say no to glittering prizes and huge audiences, but it’s a Faustian bargain and he knew it. He was an attractive man, and he played up the sex god thing, like a male stripper does.”

“He was comfortable with the attention of women, ever since he was a small child,” adds Tina. “I remember my mother once saying to him, ‘I wish you’d settle down.’ He just laughed and put his arm around her and said, ‘Mom, there are just too many beautiful women in the world.’ But he wasn’t what I’d call a womaniser. He had long relationships lasting years.”

Michael Hutchence with Helena Christensen in Monaco City, 1994 Credit: Getty

The film has a touching sequence depicting Hutchence’s relationship with Minogue between 1989 and 1991, comprising intimate footage filmed by the couple themselves in hotel rooms, on yachts and trains. “Sex, love, food, drugs, music, travel, books, you name it, he wanted to experience it,” says Minogue. “He had insatiable curiosity, all the good things in life and some bad. He opened up a whole new world for me. A lot of it was based around pleasure, let’s face it.”

By 1992, Hutchence was dating the Danish supermodel Helena Christensen. In August that year, the couple were cycling in Copenhagen and stopped on a corner to eat a slice of pizza. A local taxi driver, apparently enraged because their bikes were blocking his path, got out and punched Hutchence, who fell and struck his head. Hospital scans showed he had suffered a fractured skull and lesions on his frontal lobe. His olfactory nerve had been severed, leaving him with no sense of smell or taste. Hutchence wanted the whole thing hushed up and swore Christensen to secrecy, but the impact of the injury soon became clear. “It was very difficult for her,” says Lowenstein. “She swore she’d never talk about it. But she felt it was important to put the story right and not let him go down in history as this louche rock star who flew too close to the sun and took too many drugs and became an a---hole. Because it did become pretty messy at the end.”

According to doctors consulted by Lowenstein, Hutchence’s brain trauma would have been a personality-changing event that put him in the highest risk category for suicide. “Something had dramatically changed,” says Lowenstein about the difference he detected in Hutchence after the injury. “The light in the eye, that spark, that vibrancy – it was gone.” Hutchence would get confused easily and lose his temper. Recording sessions became fraught – in 1993, INXS bassist Garry Beers claimed Hutchence pulled out a knife and threatened to kill him. The band’s career began a very rapid descent and in 1996, when Hutchence presented a Brit award to Oasis, Noel Gallagher quipped: “Has-beens shouldn’t present awards to gonna-bes.”

“Pop is a cruel mistress, it’s all over so quickly,” says Lowenstein. “There is no other art form where you could be considered past-it in your early 30s, it’s ridiculous.”

By then, Hutchence had become involved with Yates and was being hounded by the tabloids, depicted as a villain breaking up the Geldof marriage. I found myself at the end of an abusive call at the time, when Hutchence phoned GQ magazine, where I was working as a freelance journalist, to complain about a headline. “He started doing that a lot,” says Lowenstein. “His judgment wasn’t great at that stage. He’d be making angry calls and having disjointed discussions that were often very hard to follow. He was becoming a very erratic person.”

In July 1996, Yates gave birth to a daughter, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily Hutchence, while still embroiled with Geldof in a custody battle over their three daughters. When Hutchence went to Australia to tour with INXS in 1997, his new family were unable to join him. Increasingly distraught and embattled, he had an affair with Australian actress Kym Wilson. At 5am on Nov 22, Hutchence was overheard in his hotel room having an angry phone call with Geldof. Later that day, he was found dead.

“I have huge sympathy for Bob [Geldof],” says Lowenstein, whose film avoids apportioning blame. “I don’t want to point fingers in the film, ’cause the finger keeps coming back to Michael himself. The Paula years were incredibly tumultuous. And there was a feeling among his friends that [Michael] just wanted out, and he didn’t know how to get out.”

Only 14 months old when Hutchence died, and 4 when Yates died, Tiger Lily is now 23, raised as a member of the Geldof family. She was instrumental in helping Lowenstein acquire the rights to INXS songs for the documentary. “We had a version without music where you’d come out feeling like you’d been hit by a truck,” admits the director. “I wanted Michael’s spirit to rise at the end.”

In the final shots, the singer is shown backstage in 1987, relaxed and happy at the piano, caught in the act of composing the song Mystify. “We’re leaving broken hearts behind,” he sings.

“I think about all the wonderful things he got to do, all the amazing experiences,” says Tina. “And then you think about the future and realise he doesn’t have one and his child won’t get to know him. But it makes me happy to see him on the screen. That’s the Michael we knew and loved.”

Mystify: Michael Hutchence 
is out on Friday