It’s Personal – Ego: The Michael Gudinski Story

It’s Personal – Ego: The Michael Gudinski Story

Fiercely independent, and a tireless champion of Australian talent, Mushroom Records founder Michael Gudinski universally engendered respect from both industry peers and the artists he worked with. Still, like most workaholics, Gudinski was a complex character who could rub people up the right way and the wrong way.

As acclaimed Australian music video and film director Paul Goldman admits: “Depending on what day of the week, I’d call him a friend… and then I would call him an enemy at other times.”

Appropriately, Goldman is the director of documentary Ego: The Michael Gudinski Story.

A terrific watch throughout, the documentary traces Gudinski’s career and familial relationships across six decades. From early days growing up in the Melbourne suburb of Caulfield as the son of European Jewish immigrants, through the various ups (mainly) and downs, to his sudden death in 2021.

From the get-go, Gudinski’s approach to the music business was unorthodox, illustrated by his first audacious Mushroom release – the seemingly commercially unviable triple live LP album of the infamous and inaugural Sunbury Festival. The music festival was conceived as Australia’s own Woodstock. A year later in 1974, Sunbury augmented the all-Australian line-up by booking British act Queen, and while singer Freddie Mercury had to endure the crowd shouting “go back to Pommyland, pooftah” within a decade, Michael Gudinski had endeared himself to a raft of high-profile overseas acts which he and Mushroom’s touring arm formed life-long relationships with.

These relationships and those with homegrown artists like Jimmy Barnes and Kylie Minogue, often included invites to his family home to share meals with his family. Turning himself inside out for his artists and giving them artistic control, made him one of the most respected, trusted and loved Australian promoters and record executives. International stars like Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, Sting, Shirley Manson (Garbage) and more recently Ed Sheeran – who all eagerly line up to wax lyrical on screen – became Gudinski’s lifelong friends.

It’s been just over two years since Michael Gudinski passed away at the age of 68 in his hometown of Melbourne, but as Mushroom celebrates its 50th Anniversary in 2023, the arrival of Ego: The Michael Gudinski Story couldn’t be better timed.

Here, director Paul Goldman discussed the film’s protracted production and his own relationship with its idiosyncratic protagonist.

Congratulations on the film. While it doesn’t come off as any kind of puff piece, for viewers who never got to meet Gudinski, it’s odds-on that most will walk out of the cinema very much liking him. So why – besides the obvious nod to the Skyhooks song – did you call the film Ego? Is it really not a dirty word?

“It alludes to that song and that band, of course. Skyhooks were crucial in Michael’s career, and he was crucial in their careers. And I loved that song. That very unveiled allusion to that song works for us. But it’s also meant to be provocative and playful.

“Of course, I think you need a lot of ego, a lot of front, to do what Michael did. Especially when he did it, which I think we could very easily lose sight of in 2023. The idea that a 20-year-old in 1972 decides to start a record company is a very bold, bold move to make. Especially, at the time in a country where the record industry is overrun by international majors who are basically just paying to do retreads of hits from overseas; who don’t give their artists any creative control whatsoever about any aspect of anything they’re doing. Michael, in 1972, says: ‘Fuck it, I’m going to start a record company that’s truly independent and I’m going to let my artists have more or less creative control’. And he was true to his word.”

Besides your previous feature films (Australian Rules, Suburban Mayhem, The Night We Called it a Day), you’re also known for directing music videos, including ‘Better The Devil You Know’ for Kylie Minogue – who is one of Michael Gudinski’s great international success stories – along with other Mushroom artists. So, you knew Michael Gudinski personally and professionally for quite a long time before starting this film, right?

“Yeah, I met Michael when I was at film school at Swinburne, which was one of two film schools at the time… in Melbourne. I was at Swinburne and in first year and as a TV studio exercise I made a music video for ‘Shivers’ for the Boys Next Door – Nick Cave’s first band. Michael heard about it [and] he invited me [to meet with him]. I went in there with the producer of the video who was also in my year at film school, Lucy [McLaren], who’s had a very storied career as a producer. Michael had a look at it and said: ‘I want that. I’m going to pay for you to bump it up’. And we basically said: ‘Well, you can’t have it’. And he said: ‘I want it!’ And Lucy said: ‘Go fuck yourself’. He said: ‘Well, here’s the money, go and bump it up to broadcast quality’. A couple of weeks later, it was on (late-night TV music program) Nightmoves. I got suspended from film school!

“And thus began a long relationship I had with Michael. I’ve made over 200 music videos, so that was the beginning of them. I went on to do ‘Nick the Stripper’ for The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds. I’ve made… many, many music videos for Michael. Lots for Jimmy [Barnes]. Michael was also the executive producer on the Ben Cousins documentary I made.”

So how did you come to be directing a documentary about Michael himself?

“Michael rang me up and said: ‘Can you read these treatments?’ Various companies were sending him treatments because, as we know, [Mushroom’s] 50th anniversary was forthcoming, and Michael wanted to do something to celebrate the 50th anniversary. He sent me these treatments from other companies. I read them and he said: ‘What do you think?’ I said: ‘Well, yeah, not much, but you don’t need me to tell you that’. And then he said: ‘Well, come in and talk to me… I want you to do it’.

“I was pretty reluctant to begin with because I just felt like it would be a tangle and it can be exhausting. And I felt like maybe I knew too much, and maybe I’d just get too emotionally involved and we’d end up having a lot of fights. And then eventually I decided I would come on board. We were going to make a three or four part television documentary series.”

We were going to ask you whether a TV mini-series might have been the initial idea.

“Yeah, it was. We were going to make it very much more detailed, and the very robust discussions were about Michael’s role. I came on board because I said that I wanted it to be anchored by him. I knew there was this enormous cachet of archival material [because] Michael loved the camera and was very happy to stand in front of cameras and talk about himself, his artists, and beat a very, very loud drum for Australian music. So, we knew there was an amazing, deep archive to dive into of interviews with him. But we were gearing up to do very extensive interviews with Michael… I wanted Michael to do a fresh interview, and the invitation was to kind of fucking just tell it like you want to tell it and have the final say. And of course, then COVID struck, and all our best laid plans were put to the torch, especially both of us living in Melbourne. It was impossible to negotiate doing anything. But we continued talking. I kept doing research. We kept writing, we kept making plans. The lockdown finally ended, and we were gearing up to get back into it. And Michael died.”

As for many others, that must have come as quite a shock to you.

“Yeah, it was a shock to me. I guess what I was also shocked about, was how many of my friends were so shaken by Michael’s death and the outpouring of grief, particularly in Melbourne. The city just shut down for a day. It was across all media. I was getting phone calls nonstop all day, and I was amazed at just the depth of feeling for Michael. We put the project away for a few months and then… dusted it off and wondered what the hell we would do now. We decided that we’d just make a documentary portrait of him, knowing that there was that archive there, hoping that people would very willingly come to be interviewed, which they did, and we began work. I was about to go off and do a big feature film in Western Australia [Kid Snow], which I was doing at the same time.

“So, I was making two films at the same time, which is a pretty savage thing to do to yourself. I was cutting the two films at the same time. I was doing interviews for the documentary while on the weekends I was shooting the feature. It’s a big film, but I felt like I had to honour the promise I’d made to Michael to make it.

“Also, dealing with a lot of people’s grief and the families; they still are [grieving].

“These things are always fraught, because Michael was no saint. And the invitation was to quite a few people to have a big swing at him. We certainly wanted to encompass that. I didn’t want to make a hagiography. I don’t know whether it is or isn’t. I just wanted to make something that was a fucking rollercoaster ride that honoured this incredible fucking force of nature, who was a maverick and a larrikin and a trailblazer and a fucking hit maker and passionate about so many things. And was a giant. I just wanted to capture the music of the times.

“I wanted it to be about someone who’s very complex. From the outset, I kept asking myself – and I had done this anyway over the decades: what the hell makes this guy tick? I mean, he was so obsessed with taking Australian music to the world. He was obsessed with getting a number one hit in America. He was obsessed with proving his father wrong, who thought he was a bit of a bum. He’s the son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants who’d come through the Second World War and the Holocaust. I mean, that is a heavy burden to shoulder as an elder son.”

1985 – MICHAEL GUDINSKI – Dunas Lane Office – photo courtesy of Mushroom Group Archives

The desire to gain a parent’s approval and prove your worth is a recurring theme in many people’s career motivations and therefore at the centre of many artist documentaries.

“Yeah, I think many of us live in the shadow of our parents. Most of us want to prove something to them, and Michael was no different. From a very early age, he struck out on a pretty individual path and there were enough people, naysayers, around him. He had his back to the wall so many times and managed to resuscitate a business that at times looked like it needed life support. But he was also just passionate about Australian music and the bands that he was behind and the music that he nurtured and mentored and helped create. It’s a list of some of the most iconic artists in Australian music history and some of the most classic albums ever recorded.”

Talking of which, the film opens to the sounds of ‘I Hear Motion’ by the band Models, another of Michael’s eventual success stories, but also a band who were arguably commercial failures early on. Given artistic freedom by Michael, they made utterly groundbreaking albums like Alphabravacharliedeltaechofoxtrotgolf and Michael continued to believe in them until it paid off with a string of hits starting with ‘I Hear Motion’. Why did you not feature the band again at all during the rest of the film? Did you try and interview Models’ singer Sean Kelly?

“I guess missing out Models for me was painful, but then I kind of thought their trajectory was very similar to Split Enz in a lot of ways. These decisions are always hard. They’re hard for me because I’ve made 200 music videos, including videos for Models. And I know Sean and [keyboardist] Andrew [Duffield] and I knew [bassist/hit songwriter] James Freud when he joined. A lot of this music intersects with my own life. I guess we decided that there were certain artists that were pillars of Michael’s career. Clearly Skyhooks. I really wanted to start the documentary with the Chain and those bands which [also] don’t get any mention, really. The criterion was: what were the acts that changed the Australian music industry that Michael had a very personal relationship with? Split Enz, Paul Kelly, Mark Seymour and Hunters and Collectors, Ed Sheeran and strangely Bruce Springsteen and Sting. They were kind of like the central pillars of this documentary. So, the music had to be excellent, and the bands had to be game-changing and Michael had to have a very personal relationship with them. And there’s no better example, I guess, than his most personal relationship, which was with Jimmy Barnes.”

2015, ED SHEERAN and MICHAEL GUDINSKI, photo by Brian Purnell

Yes, the relationship with Jimmy seems special and more fully explored.

“Michael’s relationship with Jimmy is incredibly personal, incredibly intimate and it’s essential to Michael’s career, his story and the story of Australian music.”

Another of the relationships explored in the film is the one Michael Gudinski had with the women he worked with, whether staff or artists. Given the allegations we’ve all read about various music promoters/record company executives and the fact Gudinski was a man who cut his teeth during rock ’n’ roll’s misogynistic 1970s, it’s surprising how much as a viewer we end up liking him after watching your film. We couldn’t help but think of the similarly-aged Sony Music Australia Chairman Denis Handlin and the decades of disturbing stories about him – which culminated in ABC TV’s Four Corners exposé – and how stark the contrast between the two mens’ approach to their staff and artists. You touch on Michael’s respect for women and the fact that he seemed to like having strong women around him in a business sense. Can you talk a little about how you approached this subject in the final cut?

“I think that we all thought to ourselves: ‘should we go there?’ It was certainly a topic of discussion with many of the interviewees. That section was much longer at times, and we were trying to jam in so many things. I was trying to also kind of get that sense of his enormous contributions to indigenous music and once again, I think that section is quite short as well. We left so much stuff out. We didn’t go near Mushroom Pictures and films like Chopper and the various films [Michael] made.

“I think Michael is an anomaly when it comes to the treatment of women. There were so many great creative [female] talents and there still are in that company. Michael gave them a voice in that company; a real voice in that company… in a business that is still pretty fucking misogynistic, sexist and disreputable. I don’t know how you would find any woman who would have a really bad thing to say about Michael. He could be a fucking tough taskmaster, but he had people like Amanda Pelman. They’re tricky, feisty, fierce, wonderful, creative, outspoken people, and he embraced all those people around him, even the artists he had.

“But it just seemed that Shirley Manson [singer from Garbage] just said it so simply and succinctly [in the film]. No one said it any more succinctly or simply than Shirley Manson. I guess we thought: What else are we going to say about this?”

1976 – RENEE GEYER, MICHAEL GUDINSKI and ANNIE WRIGHT, photo courtesy of Annie Wright

Dealing with music publishers when making a music documentary is often a nightmare for filmmakers and licensing music is usually incredibly costly. Was it easy for this film, given Mushroom are involved?

“It’s never easy. Michael obviously sold Mushroom to Rupert Murdoch. And then it was unsold. As you know, you come to a project like this presuming that you can pick and choose whatever you like. The publishing is often still owned by Mushroom. Michael’s great coup, of course, was selling the company to Rupert Murdoch, but keeping the publishing. You still need to get access to videos. To get access to the mechanical rights to the songs is complicated. Trying to [include] Bruce Springsteen covering an INXS song – I’m sure you can imagine what the paper trail looks like on that! It was very complicated. There was a stupendous amount of archival material, much of it owned by the ABC or with the National Film and Sound Archive. Of course, the advantage was that Mushroom and Michael and his businesses had kept a lot of stuff. But this documentary was led by an incredible research team and archival team headed up by Paige McGinley. They spent months and months before we really began getting our ducks in a row. And like any documentary like this, we were sitting on 1000 hours of archive and 120 hours of interviews I did. Sara Edwards, the editor, worked tirelessly for nine months putting this thing together. It’s all split screen, so in fact, it’s not one film. If you actually laid it all out end to end, it’s the equivalent of about three feature films of material.

“It’s a stupendous amount of material. I made this decision very early, stylistically, that I wanted the film to have this incredible energy and momentum [so] you could barely draw breath at times. I mean, structurally, the film kind of works. It’s very, very plot driven at the start and then over the course of its 110 minutes, it stretches out a little bit, and we hear people ruminating about who Michael really was. But at the start, it’s all about momentum and about energy and hitting all the story plot lines because they’re so much fun to be involved with. But I realised that over the course of the documentary, I needed to then offer people some insights into who Michael really was and what motivated him.”

Do you have a favourite moment in the film? Or maybe a moment during filming when you uncovered something that you weren’t expecting?

“I think, the revelations about his sister that he never met – incredible! I think drawing that bow to Archie Roach was incredible. To hear Michael talk about how he understands what [Archie] means by [the song] ‘Took The Children Away’. I thought it was incredible and so poignant and so unexpected. The thought that Michael makes that connection… You could hear it in his voice, the depth of emotion, both for Archie and for those indigenous issues. And, you know, Michael was such a strong, proud advocate of Indigenous artists right from the start as well. And that was certainly in large part thanks to Paul Kelly’s advocacy and Michael listening very attentively to that stuff. But [also] interviewing Ed Sheeran, who I didn’t have any expectations of. I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. I mean, just the joy in everything. Every time he talked about Michael, it was just pure, unadulterated, genuine joy. I thought that was incredible. And then to be sitting there with people like Greg Macainsh, who I think is an incredible songwriter – Skyhooks’ records were game changing for the Australian music industry.”

Yes, watching your film, it really struck us again just how out-there Skyhooks were for the ‘70s.

“Exactly. Skyhooks and Split Enz. I mean, Split Enz… just fucking crazy. I mean, any band who thinks they’re kind of pushing the envelope these days should go back and have a look at the first couple of Split Enz [records].”

Your film is getting a theatrical release, which is usually a difficult hurdle for music documentaries in Australia. How difficult was it to get that happening for Ego: The Michael Gudinski Story?

“I think it’s always hard. I think we’re very excited to see the John Farnham documentary doing so well. That’s doing gangbusters business out there. I think that in some sense, we hope that [it’s] paving the way. One of the things I like about the film is if you see it in the cinema, we’ve turned the volume up. It is a celebration of Australian music. A loud, wild celebration of Australian music. I think Australians don’t often honour the mavericks and the trailblazers and I’m sure we all wish that the Australian film industry had such a strong, loud, boisterous, entertaining advocate as the music industry had in Michael Gudinski. We could well and truly do with it! We could have done with it all through the decades, and we could very much do with it right now.”

Ego: The Michael Gudinski Story will world premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 10 and opens in cinemas around Australian from August 31, 2023.

Main Photo: 1981 MICHAEL GUDINSKI – Credit Mushroom Group Archives

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