'This is not the Michael that I know' - what really led to the death of INXS star Michael Hutchence?
A new documentary sheds light on an altercation that could have played a major role in the INXS singer's death at the age of 37, writes Aoife Kelly
More than two decades after the death of charismatic INXS frontman Michael Hutchence, the established tabloid narrative of a troubled rock star driven to suicide by drugs and a tumultuous love life endures. His relationship with British TV presenter Paula Yates in the months before his death and the far-reaching fallout for his family, including his daughter Tiger Lily, after his death has dominated headlines.
Now a new documentary film aims to transcend that narrative and paint a more nuanced picture of the man and the events leading up to that tragic day on November 22, 1997, when he was found dead in a Sydney hotel room on the eve of a world tour.
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Mystify: Michael Hutchence charts the Australian rock star's life from a fractured childhood to global success, and suggests that a fateful accident on a Copenhagen street in 1992 may have marked the beginning of the end for the star.
At the time of his death, Hutchence's private life was under intense tabloid scrutiny as a custody battle raged between Yates and her ex-husband Bob Geldof over their three daughters Peaches, Pixie and Fifi Trixibelle. Yates had left the Boomtown Rats frontman, Live Aid founder and 'Saint Bob' for Hutchence and two months after her divorce from the former, she welcomed daughter Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily with her new beau. Tiger Lily was just 16 months old when her father died aged just 37.
His death was ruled suicide by the coroner. Yates later suggested it may have been accidental due to auto-erotic asphyxiation. This simply added to the tabloid maelstrom of questions and wild hypotheses touted at the time, and is one theory which has never quite been laid to rest despite the fact there was no forensic or other evidence to substantiate that claim.
However, Mystify is not concerned with retracing that brief but well-worn chapter of Hutchence's story. Its lens takes a wider focus, drawing on interviews with members of the singer's family, his closest colleagues and friends. Some are speaking for the first time.
Former flame Helena Christensen has never spoken publicly about the star or their relationship and her testimony is compelling. The Danish supermodel and photographer relates a shocking incident in Copenhagen in 1992.
"We were riding home on our bikes and this insane taxi driver got out of his car and punched him," she tells documentary maker Richard Lowenstein.
Hutchence fell during the altercation and fractured his skull. He regained consciousness in hospital, but refused to be treated and, it seems, he never quite recovered. That head injury precipitated a marked change in his personality. Another friend reveals: "Right from the get-go, Michael was kind of different. I just felt this incredible overwhelming sense of sadness; this is not the Michael that I know."
In the wake of the injury, Hutchence lost his sense of smell and became depressed. He also began exhibiting uncharacteristic aggressiveness and his drug use increased. Hutchence's older sister Tina also believes the injury was pivotal in her brother's subsequent downward spiral. Speaking to The Guardian Australia last year, following the publication of her biography of her brother, Michael: My Brother, Lost Boy of INXS, she addressed the impact of that injury on his life.
"While he lost his sense of smell and taste, I don't believe he was told much else about what could happen," she said. "He was put on Prozac and told he'd get through the headaches. But there has been so much written about TBIs [traumatic brain injuries] in the US over the last five years, looking at football players and boxers. It made sense to me the more I read, because Michael's personality changed dramatically."
As well as grappling with the repercussions of the injury, at the time of his death, there was the burden of a world tour, the pressure of remaining relevant as a band and, of course, the relentless, invasive focus on his personal life, led predominantly by the British tabloid press. His death came just three months after that of Princess Diana, at a time when the pursuit of celebrity scandal was at its sorry peak.
Mystify was 10 years in the making and director Lowenstein was a close friend of the star. He helmed several INXS videos in the 80s and 90s, as well as the 1986 film Dogs In Space, which featured Hutchence. As such, Lowenstein had access to never before seen photos and footage, including film shot by Hutchence of himself and former girlfriend Kylie Minogue on a ship's deck and on the Orient Express, and clips of the star partying in Italy with Christensen.
The singer's childhood sweetheart, Michele Bennet, also speaks about him for the first time since his death. Despite their split, they remained firm friends and she was the last person to speak to him before he died.
Fellow Aussie Minogue, who he dated for three years, friend and U2 frontman Bono, author Kathy Lette, and INXS members Garry Gary Beers, Tim Farris, Jon Farris, Andrew Farris, and Kirk Pengilly also contribute.
A picture of the star's childhood is drawn largely from interviews with family members, including sister Tina, brother Rhett, and Susie Hutchence, their stepmother and wife of their father Kell. Kell was a businessman and their mother Patricia Glassop was a make-up artist. When the children were young, the family moved often, from Australia to Hong Kong, and back again.
After their parents split, their mother took Michael to live in California for a year, leaving his little brother Rhett behind. This was traumatic for both boys, and Tina has said their late mother never forgave herself for leaving Rhett who became an addict in his teens and ultimately went to rehab.
The family dynamics inevitably had an impact on Michael, according to Lowenstein. Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald last year, he highlighted the chasm between Michael's media/stage persona and the man in real life.
"He was very easy to stereotype into the louche rock star who womanised and all that sort of stuff, but he was incredibly multifaceted," he said. "That image was just a persona that comes with the long hair and the good looks.
"For a lot of people, especially the British, that's all they saw. But those who knew him knew there was a very different story. They knew the trouble along the way, the guilt he felt about the fact he was finding success so easily while his brother wasn't, about the fact his parents were torn apart and why couldn't he be the glue that held them together.
"You can see it in [the footage of] the holidays [at his house] in the south of France - he tried to be the glue that brought everyone back together again."
Mystify: Michael Hutchence opens in cinemas on October 18 and will air on BBC Two at a later date.
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