By Katherine Tulich
Ego is not a dirty word when it comes to the large life of Australian music entrepreneur Michael Gudinski. Even if the name is not familiar the artists and music he piloted as founder of Mushroom Records through five decades are – Kylie Minogue, Jimmy Barnes, Skyhooks, Paul Kelly, Hunters and Collectors, Yothu Yindi, Archie Roach to name but a few.
He also brought music to Australia with his Frontier Touring Company which still tours the biggest names in music – Ed Sheeran, Bruce Springsteen, Foo Fighters, Sting, Billy Joel.
Directed by Paul Goldman (“Such is Life: The Troubled Times of Ben Cousins”), Ego features never-before-seen archive footage and exclusive interviews with the cream of the Australian and international stars who were all eager to lend their time to voice their favourite anecdotes of the maverick much loved ( and often hated) loud brash but always enthusiastic Gudinski.
FCCA Member Katherine Tulich spoke to director Goldman about the making of the film, and the emotional journey it became after Gudinski’s unexpected passing at the age of 68 in March 2021.
What does this documentary tell us about the life of Michael Gudinski?
Paul Goldman: Well, it’s strictly chronological. Michael’s career spans 50 years. As a very young man who hadn’t even finished high school he was very determined to start a record company. It was 1972 and the Australian music industry was run by international record companies who just released retreads of hits from overseas. And here is this young, headstrong, loud, brash and sometimes very rude Michael Gudinski who had a real passion for music. He started a record company, and it’s truly independent and it’s family owned, and he beats the drum very loudly over five decades for the Australian music industry and takes Australian music overseas. He nurtured some of the greatest Australian bands over the last 50 years and released iconic records. It’s a story of a young man’s determination who has left an enormous legacy.
Why is it important to celebrate his legacy on film?
Paul Goldman: I think we only reluctantly respect people’s legacies in Australia. I think that’s something that we don’t do. We don’t have a great sense of the legacy of our creative people or our people in business. It’s maybe glib to talk about the soundtrack of people’s lives but Michael left the soundtrack to a nation.
Talk about the genesis of this documentary. It was originally Michael’s idea as he wanted to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Mushroom Records, and he approached you to do it?
Paul Goldman: He approached me and I was reluctant. I’ve done a lot of work with Michael I’ve probably made 70 or 80 music videos for Mushroom artists. I was reluctant because I didn’t want to make a hagiography. I didn’t want it to be a puff piece. I didn’t want it to be some kind of corporate documentary promoting the Mushroom empire. I came on board in the end because I said to Michael, let’s make a four part documentary series and really get stuck into it. We planned to do a long interview with him over a week but then COVID hit and being in Melbourne, the whole state went into lockdown. Michael retreated home as he had some health issues and made that his sanctuary. Then as we came out of those lockdowns, we started gearing up and Michael passed away. I decided that the best way forward was to make a documentary portrait of Michael, I knew there was this enormous cachet of material Michael loves the limelight, and he loved the camera and he loved spruking himself and the industry . That became the backbone of the documentary. Then we just started lining up the interviews that we could get. We were lucky to have people like Jimmy Barnes, who can be disarmingly honest. When it came to Michael, he had a very personal relationship, a profound one. Their families were very involved. Jimmy was part of Michael’s life in a way that not many record company executives share their lives with artists. I wanted to make a love letter to Michael and the Australian music industry, and in a very quiet way to Melbourne as well.
Was it difficult to navigate as it was so close to his passing?
Paul Goldman: If you walk into a project like this, there are so many stake holders. There’s so many people who feel like they own Michael as well or own his story. That they know the truth somehow.
It was fraught with a lot of emotion. I mean, a lot of the people in front of the camera ended up being very, very emotional and breaking down. I wanted to be respectful but I also didn’t want anyone to walk away from this thinking Michael was an angel. So, for me, in the end, Michael is a conundrum . One of my favourite films is “Citizen Kane”. I love the idea of finding rosebud … what is that thing that drove that young man from a very early age.
Did you find his Rosebud?
Paul Goldman: I don’t think so. I think that in a way, that’s too easy. Even in “Citizen Kane” that’s closed in some kind of ambiguity. And it’s not a very satisfying revelation either.
Do you think his drive came from his childhood?
Paul Goldman: I think he was always trying to prove something to his father. He was the eldest son in a Jewish family. His parents escaped the Holocaust and they lost their daughter so Michael lost a sister that he never. He had a pretty fractious relationship with his father. I think he was constantly trying to prove something to his dad. It’s not uncommon.
I think Michael is a very complex guy. He had some pretty dark moments in his life and dealt with some real tragedies like all of us.
It does seem to represent a time we will never get again in the music industry. These cowboys of the music industry who worked with passion and not just the bottom dollar. Do you agree it feels like a time we will never get again?
Paul Goldman: When Michael started no one knew what the hell was the rules. Michael was a Maverick, a rule breaker and and a game changer. And that’s not the case anymore. The music industry’s run by shareholders, and it’s big business, and the stakes are very high. The industry has gone through so many changes When Michael started it was all about records and releasing products. It’s now totally the opposite. It’s all about tours. And the amounts of money that those tours generate is phenomenal.
With the success of the John Farnham documentary is there now an appetite to see these documentaries in the cinema?
Paul Goldman: I actually have mixed the film for theatrical release. If the exhibitors play it the way it’s intended, it’ll be loud and it should be very loud. It’s a celebration of Australian music as well as Michael Gudinski. Clearly we’re hoping that on the coat tales of the John Farnham documentary that people will go and see it. They both capture a certain golden age of Australian music.
Does this have any international appeal or is this story purely interesting to Australians?
Paul Goldman: I think there’s an appetite for it. I think because of the interviews with people like Bruce Springsteen and Sting and Billy Joel and Ed Sheeran. There was no end of people who wanted to come and speak. Michael’s indelible legacy overseas is enormous. Michael, forged amazingly profound relationships, not just with his local artists, but with people overseas like Ed Sheehan. Overseas Michael is certainly enormously respected and esteemed and we can see that when Michael died, you could see that in the trade press in both Europe and England and America. There was just an outpouring of grief, and tributes came flooding in from everywhere.