EGO: THE MICHAEL GUDINSKI STORY (Mushroom Studios)
YOU CAN IMAGINE the producer, writer and director (Bethany Jones, Sara Edwards and Paul Goldman, respectively) of this documentary hitting a wall immediately. In telling the Michael Gudinski story, how do you represent his irrepressible-to-the-point-of manic energy, his looming, close-talking physical presence, his double-speed talking?
Presumably, jerky handheld cameras, intense close-ups and sped up film coming at you in five minute bursts, followed by a quick disappearance, and reappearance somewhere else even faster, were ruled out. Reluctantly.
Instead, we must make do with frequent references to it from everyone who encountered him: usually told in rueful or wide-eyed remembrance; sometimes with the equally manic glee of survivors who knew they’d been in the centre of a tornado, more than once, and somehow walked out with limbs and most of their clothing still attached.
It was this energy in all its manifestations which appealed to Sting when The Police first toured Australia; worried Gudinski’s father, who thought it was ill directed and wasteful when he could have been doing a proper job like any good immigrant kid; deterred Bruce Springsteen’s manager, Jon Landau, for some years when tours were being pitched; and amazed Jimmy Barnes, who would see his friend of 40 years hit five or six or more shows in a night, spending five minutes at each, sucking in the atmosphere and action, but always “looking for the next” … the next everything.
Funnily enough, title notwithstanding, ego doesn’t really get that much of an airing for the man who started the Mushroom label, Mushroom Publishing, Liberation label, Mushroom Films, Premier Artists booking agency, and Frontier Touring, and would become the biggest name and the most influential force in this country’s music business right up to his death in 2021.
Not because Gudinski had none – while it is his erstwhile friend, colleague and rival, Michael Chugg, who admits to his own ego to being out of control at times (though no more than Gudinski’s, he adds), Skyhooks’ songwriter Greg Macainsh notes there was a time when Gudinski, the head of the label, was being interviewed at least as much as any of the acts on Mushroom (which is not normally recommended, he adds). And anyway, as Macainsh’s potent song, Ego (Is Not A Dirty Word), put it, “If I did not have an ego I would not be here tonight/If I did not have an ego I might not think that I was right … If you did not have an ego you'd just be like the rest.”
But self-aggrandisement just doesn’t seem to figure at the top of the Gudinski list, if this film is to be believed. Or if it was, it was sharing space with the thrill of closing a deal, the rush of besting his rivals, the satisfaction seeing an artistic vision realised, and the national pride in seeing Australian music heard and respected at home and abroad. Oh yes, and two more things, love and family – which as almost everyone from Ed Sheeran down explains, included artist and employees.
Now, given this is effectively an in-house production, made in the aftermath of Gudinski’s sudden death, there’s no surprise that everything, even bankruptcy, is given a particular positive gloss, apart maybe from his failure to predict and hitch onto the rise of independent Australian music in the ‘90s. And even that is skated by.
The most we get is a former business partner saying that Gudinski was not universally loved, a brief summation of the brutal severing of another long-time partnership over the suggestion of disloyalty, Paul Kelly’s initial scepticism of the whole Mushroom “family” vibe (he feared it might be more like the claustrophobic enclosing of Cosa Nostra; but became a believer eventually) and the almost amusing self-flagellation by the man himself over two big errors: rejecting Men At Work and not signing Cold Chisel.
There is almost nothing about the tactics and behaviours in the wild west years of the ‘70s music business, the misjudgements of his bid to tap into punk/post-punk scene in Melbourne in the late ‘70s and the attempt (with Chugg and others) to replicate and then crush the Big Day Out’s hold on indie/alternative touring artists 20 years later. And even the decision he would always regret, selling Mushroom to the evil empire of Murdoch and sons, is described as personally questionable but commercially wise.
More interestingly though is the lightly touched on question of motivation. How much of his drive, maybe even compulsion, to find the next and conquer the next and at the same time build a broad “family”, was in response to the approval he never got from his father for his schooling and career choices? How much came from being the children of Holocaust survivors, parents who had given up the firstborn daughter to a Gentile family in a bid to save her from the worst of the Nazis, and were forever grateful to Australia for immeasurably better lives? And did this underpin his unequivocal support for Indigenous artists?
What more was there behind what Jon Landau identifies as the potential for shadow on Gudinski’s soul, remembering the Australian losing the “bonhomie” occasionally in private, and showing the insecurity and doubt that might have fuelled his life and career?
And where did his longtime support for, elevation of, and respect shown to women at every level of his business, art and life – still not common today and practically non-existent in the rest of the misogynistic music industry during his 50 years within it – come from?
To that point, it is curious that there are relatively few women who worked with him and prospered alongside him on camera throughout this film. Still, one who is quoted extensively, Kylie Ann Minogue of Caulfield South, captures a vast story and incredible success in a neat summation: “Michael could read the room and adapt.”
That he could. And did.
Ego: The Michael Gudinski Story opens in cinemas Thursday, August 31st.