By Charlie David Page
11th August 2023

Australian music seems to ebb and flow. While so heavily dominated by music from the United States and Britain, every now and then we have surges of huge success from local artists. Perhaps no man has been more passionate about making that happen than Michael Gudinski, the founder of Mushroom Records, and later, the Mushroom Group, Australia's largest independent entertainment company. He kick-started the music careers of Kylie Minogue, Skyhooks, Split Enz, Garbage and Vance Joy. He championed Australian talent like Hunters and Collectors, Paul Kelly and The Temper Trap. He backed indigenous artists not because he had to, but because he wanted to. He turned touring into an art form, bringing names such as Frank Sinatra, Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen. He not only worked with but was close friends with Sting, Ed Sheeran and Jimmy Barnes.

This alone might seem like a good enough reason to see the new documentary on the man, 'Ego: The Michael Gudinski Story'. Actually, the film is about so much more than a biographical telling of his life. While it's packed with every single one of those names and many, many more, it's a history lesson in 111 minutes flat. It's a journey through Australian culture from the 1970s to today. It's a sampler of Australia's varying music scenes throughout that time, with a soundtrack that never gives up. And it's a psychology lesson to show what passion, dedication and drive can achieve in a person.

Taking us back through his family history and early days, we learn where Gudinski's love of music came from. He was no Elon Musk or Donald Trump; he wasn't handed millions on a platter. His parents were immigrants to Australia, so he was a self-starter, and they didn't particularly back his decision to work in the entertainment industry, so he worked hard to prove himself. He was an awkward person, and music allowed him to connect and relate to others. The early years in the business were tumultuous, but it turned out that his instinct was (in most instances) on point, leading to a rapid growth in the burgeoning Melbourne music scene.


Because of this all-or-nothing attitude, Gudinski tried things others weren't willing to. He pushed himself and Mushroom to be an all-inclusive business; what's referred to today as "360" deals, where everything is encapsulated from recording, licensing, publishing, merchandising and touring - something that, in the documentary, is mentioned as something tried and failed by multinational corporations in the 21st century, but Gudinski had working in 1975. He saw the power of publicity; his first big act, Skyhooks, was a visual (and controversial) one, and he knew they'd pair perfectly on colour TV with the newly-launched live music program Countdown. We see and hear countless examples of his business prowess - with the success of Mushroom Group now, there's no question as to that.

What we also hear is this endless stream of celebrities waxing lyrical about Gudinski's good nature. This is inevitable for this kind of documentary - especially one that's produced in-house (the film is a project from Mushroom Studios, an offshoot of the Mushroom Group). As the saying also goes, de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est (of the dead nothing but good is to be said). However, it's hard not to feel this was genuinely the case in this case. In addition to the headline names, there are also those who were closest to him, celebrity or otherwise. His wife Sue plays a prominent part, at one point getting emotional speaking about Michael's lowest moment. His daughter Kate reflects on a moment she was most proud of her father, and telling him in a way seemed like validation from his family that he'd never received from his own parents. His son Matt has his birth discussed at one point. At another, he calls his dad after school while he's on stage giving a speech. Then the day after finishing Year 12, he starts working for the company, bringing new ideas and new acts to the fold. Following his dad's death, he became Mushroom Group's CEO.

You can't help but feel Gudinski was larger than life - watch the trailer alone, and his delivery of the sentence "Max! It's Michael Gudinski. How are you?" is so replete with energy, and those seven words speak volumes to his personality. The positive about this being a Mushroom Pictures production is that there's an endless supply of interview material from Gudinski himself. You'd hardly know that the larger-than-life figure passed away on the 2nd of March 2021. The way the grabs have been pulled together - some more recent, some dating back decades - it sincerely feels as if the star of the show (for that's what he is here) is speaking to us from beyond the grave. It's a treasure trove of archive material all around, not just of interviews but backstage at sold-out gigs, tiny little gatherings in small venues with no more than a dozen people, music videos and live television performances that will take you back. 'Ego' is nothing short of a revisiting of Australia's most important musical moments.

It's a history lesson in 111 minutes flat. It's a journey through Australian culture from the 1970s to today. It's a sampler of Australia's varying music scenes throughout that time, with a soundtrack that never gives up. And it's a psychology lesson to show what passion, dedication and drive can achieve in a person.

I did, sceptically, feel that the film would be without its criticism of Gudinski. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself proven wrong on this front. It does look heavily at Mushroom's sale to Rupert Murdoch's News Ltd in 1998. Delving not only into the toll that takes on him, but the artists under his care also, it was a refreshingly necessary aspect for the documentary to dive into. It also covers some well-known faux pas on the music front, including failing to sign Men at Work, and knocking back Cold Chisel in favour of Stars (exactly - who?). These all add a little dimension to the character that was Michael Gudinski.

The film, however, is not without its flaws. Packing in so much information, it starts to sag around three-quarters of the way through. Suffering from a major structural fault, the film follows a chronological journey for the vast majority of the run time, before flipping from that formula, and then reverting back. Director Paul Goldman ('Australian Rules') struggles to know when too much of a good thing is enough, and fails to stick the landing; bringing the documentary through its awkward third act, it then ends the piece very abruptly. For a story so assuredly handled for so much of its duration, this documentary definitely goes off the rails trying to find a way out of its tale.

This doesn't detract from the importance of 'Ego: The Michael Gudinski Story' as a part of Australia's musical landscape. It's a nod to a self-made icon, a journey through our country's entertainment past, and a treasure trove of material captured from historical events that can never be recreated. There isn't anything out there like 'Ego', and it deserves to be seen as an important legacy of our local entertainment industry. We owe a debt to Michael Gudinski; his passion for keeping Australian music at the forefront of our minds ensured it wasn't overtaken by overseas interests and kept a local industry alive. We need to make sure, with him now gone, that doesn't slip away.

Looking for more Melbourne International Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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