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EGO: THE MICHAEL GUDINSKI STORY ★★★½
(M) 110 minutes
It’s hard to pick a favourite story that didn’t make the cut of Paul Goldman’s Mushroom-authorised documentary about Michael Gudinski. I’ve always liked the one about the humble rocker who approached the Australian music biz powerbroker backstage to thank him for everything he’d done to make him a star. Gudinski shut him down and waved him towards the stage. “Don’t thank me here, thank me publicly,” he barked.
Mushroom founder Michael Gudinski with Kylie Minogue, one of many Australian stars he took to the world, in 1994.
The title Ego is a cunning act of subversion on Goldman’s behalf. “Sometimes I found him pretty obnoxious,” the former pop video director said at the film’s celebrity-strewn Melbourne International Film Festival premiere.
But it’s a sentiment he leaves on the cutting room floor in favour of the loveable rogue cartoon that’s powered the pop industrialist’s legend since his sudden death in March 2021.
From a general audience perspective, it’s a fair call. There’s enough great music and vaguely naughty good times to justify the comic book graphics – Smash! Pow! – and to propel a fabulous feelgood narrative from a childhood pocketing shillings for racetrack parking in a Caulfield backyard, to Ed Sheeran’s million-selling Australian tour of 2018.
It makes sense, too, to leapfrog through the vast catalogue of Mushroom artists on the back of a few key success stories: from Skyhooks to Split Enz, Hunters and Collectors to Jimmy Barnes, Paul Kelly to Archie Roach, Kylie Minogue to … Peter Andre? As the zeitgeist morphs, also-rans might cop a flash in the montage, but it’s only the sweet smell of success that pop history has time for.
The portrait of maverick brinkmanship that emerges would thrill any music company burnishing its brand in its 50th anniversary year: an empire built by a bonkers fan with the devil’s own powers of persuasion driven, we’re told ad nauseam, by a selfless desire to bring Australian music to the world.
And, strictly as a fanboy side hustle, to bring the world here. Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel are among the filthy-rich global superstars who attest to the great man’s manic passion and tenacity.
For those of us who know this justly proud storyline well, it’s the dark holes in the bunting that arrest attention. The older sister apparently murdered as the Gudinskis fled Nazi Germany is an early gut-punch, all but lost in the whirlwind.
“Michael was a very complex man,” Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau reveals gravely, alluding to “demons” there’s no time to pursue here.
No time to interview Deborah Conway either, even after she’s identified as one of the few Mushroom artists who would give as good as she got in the Gudinski cage fight.
No word from, say, the Triffids either, to name just one great Australian band that Mushroom always calls legendary, but clearly failed to break. “Gudinski isn’t liked by everyone, I can tell you,” confides Ray Evans, his old friend and mentor. And cut.
Goldman doesn’t gloss over the bad times. Mushroom was one of many labels too fat with success to hear the ’90s sea change coming. Paul Kelly no doubt speaks for many when he voices his sense of betrayal at being sold to the Murdochs’ News Corp empire when Gudinski saw the right time to cash in his chips.
British superstar Ed Sheeran was one of the biggest acts Mushroom boss Michael Gudinski promoted.
The redemption comes in aerial shots of teeming crowds in stadium after stadium, as the dogged record man recalibrates to box office mogul in a new century, where CDs are dead and some suckers will pay $2375 to see Paul McCartney.
Exactly how the astounding commercial fortunes of Kylie Minogue and Ed Sheeran stack up against the cultural significance and entrepreneurial risks of Sunbury 1973 and Skyhooks is a question we’re left to ponder.
Rest assured there will be more books written, films made and stories told about Gudinski. This one celebrates the remarkable man, the passionate man, the loveable man, the party-lover, bulldozer and loose cannon, the telephone barker and floor-pacer who dominated Australian music for half a century.
For now, the “complex man” that some glimpsed in his darkest hours remains off-limits.
Ego: The Michael Gudinksi Story is in cinemas from August 31.
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