Mystify: Michael Hutchence Documentary Demystifies INXS Frontman

Richard Lowenstein takes away the myths, but adds to the legend in his documentary Mystify: Michael Hutchence.

Mystify: Michael Hutchence

Michael Hutchence, the lead singer of INXS, appeared to live a life in excess of the flavors of even some of the most hedonistic rock stars. He toured the world, dated pop idols and international models, and explored pleasure in all forms. His death, on Nov. 22, 1997, achieved equally mythic status.

The 37-year-old singer apparently hung himself with his snake skin belt in room 524 of Sydney’s Ritz-Carlton hotel. The coroner’s report said there was alcohol, cocaine, codeine, Prozac, Valium and prescription benzodiazepines in the artist’s blood and urine. Paula Yates, who jilted her rock royalty husband to be with the “elegantly wasted” singer, added to the myth by theorizing Huchence died of autoerotic asphyxiation. Richard Lowenstein’s documentary Mystify: Michael Hutchence, which Fathom Events will present in theaters for one night only on Jan. 7, reveals the report found another, much less epicurean, factor which would have been a major contribution to a suicide conclusion.

A post-mortem scan of Hutchence’s brain found two large areas of permanent damage which robbed him of his senses of taste and smell. He kept this secret from the public. In the documentary, Hutchence’s then-girlfriend, supermodel Helena Christensen, reveals the singer was punched by a taxi driver outside a pizza shop in Copenhagen in 1995. Hutchence was knocked off his bike and left lying unconscious in the street, bleeding from his mouth and ear. At Michael’s request, Christensen also kept this a secret.

Mystify director Richard Lowenstein has known INXS from their earliest success, directing the band’s first three music videos, “Burn for You”, “All the Voices” “Dancing on the Jetty” and continuing through the band’s “Need You Tonight,” “Never Tear Us Apart” and “Suicide Blonde.”  Lowenstein directed Hutchence in the 1986 cult classic, Dogs in Space, about Australia’s post-punk “little bands” movement. Lowenstein also directed videos for U2 the long form video for Pete Townshend’s White City album.

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Lowenstein spoke with Den of Geek about working with INXS and Michael Hutchence’s artistic ways.

DEN OF GEEK: The documentary was very powerful. You broke a lot of news in this.

RICHARD LOWENSTEIN: I broke a lot of news. Yep.

After I watched Mystify, I re-watched Dogs in Space. What it was like to work with Michael as an actor?

He was, weirdly enough, the most professional on the set. I didn’t realize his background at that stage. He’d grown up on movie sets around his mother, who was a makeup artist. He secretly harbored a desire to be a professional actor, so when it came time to actually put him in the lead role in the film, he was taking it extremely seriously and was always prepared, always doing lines. That’s more than I can say from a lot of actors on that set.

Did he bring the same artistic energy into the acting that he did into his singing? Was he just as inquisitive?

Yes, he was very humble, very curious, soaking up all the experience of the experience of the actors on set. It just brought a real sort of method acting thing to the role, almost living in the character, which you’ve obviously read about. Honestly, a lot of people got confused when they saw the film, because they just thought that’s Michael playing himself. But he was actually very unlike that character. He really did take to it the point of inhabiting another character, it was quite amusing. He couldn’t really get out of character for the entire film. He didn’t want to get out of character.

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It was very important to him that he be taken seriously as an actor. There’s been a whole thing of rock stars turned actors with varied success, but it was extremely. He brought this sort of life into the family on-set that was really wonderful. Like a good director or producer can bring, it was a sense of fun that he brought. When someone really loves the experience, it sort of makes everyone love the experience. Even though there’s daily ups and downs and everything.

Did he turn the other actors into his band as part of his method?

Absolutely. It didn’t need much help, because they were from a variety of backgrounds. Some professional actors, some just people off the street. He actually turned the entire film crew, it wasn’t just him. It was a group of us. He did enjoy and turn the entire film crew into this family for that period of time. Like any family, it’s hurtful and painful when it broke up at the end of the shoot. There were a lot of people clinging onto each other, because in some cases, it was all the acting work they would do in their lives. It was a very special time.

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There’s a scene in Dogs in Space where his character Sam is about to be beat up and all of the women in his group come to his defense. The documentary makes a good case his real life was like that. Helena Christensen kept his secret forever. There are examples throughout the entire documentary.

It’s an interesting perspective, I’ve never thought of that. But Michael and Sam in Dogs in Space were very connected to women, and women in both stories were the stronger characters. I really remember writing Dogs in Space from real life, and the women in the real story were the stronger characters. They did beat up skinheads, and in real life, Michael sometimes could be quite passive. It was the women who were the strong ones, who really, as you say, Helena kept her secret. Michelle Bennett was the amazing one who knocked on the door the very last day, she had never spoken to anyone in the entire 22 years. He really did have very strong and very loyal women around him.

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In 1984, you directed your first feature film about unions, then you did three videos for INXS. Did it feel like the beginning of a revolution?

It seemed like a decade of filmmaking and musical revolution, and certainly in hindsight. I don’t think you’re necessarily aware of it as it’s happening. You just think this is how it is for me, you’re sort of young and naïve. I do remember going into the eighties, before I even worked with INXS, and going, wow, I’ve just come out of film school and bands are putting up money to give me the budget of a short film, really. To get a budget of a short film in this country, usually it’s a year of writing a script and applying for government funds and everything. These record companies would come along and say, “Here’s five grand, here’s 10 grand.”

Eventually it was like two hundred grand. It was certainly an extraordinary time creatively and with the access to creative funds. You could live off the funds you were getting paid to do this kind of work. I think it’s sort of always tends to happen in times of economic excess, or when there’s easy money on the streets that there are all these governments, or when the stock market is high and everything. It’s money that tends to get funneled into the arts. I think the nature of the recording companies at that time, combined with the emergence of MTV, it was this new advertising phenomenon which was really much cheaper than putting a TV ad on.

read more: INXS Guitarist Tim Farriss Reflects on the Band’s Biggest Moment

It was a great time for emerging filmmakers, absolutely, and music. You look back at the vibrancy and creativity that was coming out of all the western industrialized nations at that time. Berlin, London, Melbourne, Sydney, everywhere. New York, L.A., it just seemed to be a time where people were taking risks, and taking a risk was a great thing. Of course, it always is. There was not the kind of fear or the desperation for the commercial success as there seems to be now.

Did you ever see yourself as Richard Lester to their The Beatles?

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I love Richard Lester. It’s a funny thing, growing up in Australia, we have what we have call a chip on our shoulders. We don’t actually ever feel we’re even in the pantheon of those giants. We just feel we’re some convicts on the other side of the planet. Sometimes, especially the English, went out of their way to make it feel like that, and they certainly made INXS feel like that back in the day, like some sort of convict dingo lover from the other side of the planet. I think sometimes one of our national traits is we don’t let the sort of mainstream success or any kind of success go to our heads, because we know how easily it is to be deported for seven years for stealing a handkerchief. We stayed quite humble, and I never really thought in those terms.

I see two things in the film as incredible foreshadowing. You mention the immortal olive tree right before you bring up Michael losing his sense of taste and you have the book about the human smell, making 20 perfumes out of 20 virgins.

The book Perfume has always intrigued me. On the set of Dogs in Space, in 1986, he pulls out this book to me and says, “You got to read this book. It’s incredible.” The book was very fashionable at that time, I remember it very clearly. I remember saying it’s about a guy that murders young girls. Is it really my thing? I did read it, and even though I was still questioning the morality in that book, especially in the current #MeToo age, it was beautifully and so sensuously written. I could see how it appealed to Michael. Then in hindsight, in 1993, when he lay crying in my lap and saying, “I can’t smell my girlfriend, I’m not going to be able to smell my baby,” he was really distressed after that accident.

I knew both situations. I remember thinking at the time. It was so extraordinary that he actually was obsessed with this book about a rock star figure who loves the sensual pleasures and the smells of life so much that a crowd tears him apart. It’s like a metaphor, the direction is actually heading in real life. I didn’t know at that time what was going to happen, but definitely in 1997 when I looked back at the entire story, I thought, this is kind of crazy stuff. Like it was almost fated, but of course it wasn’t.

That was definitely, the taste and smell was definitely a huge conscious thing that I went into the film with. I studied, I read Rachel Herz’s book, the specialist who is in the film, The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell, about how important smell is, she wrote it a few years after Michael died. Michael’s the opening chapter of the book, and Michael’s story. This was long before I knew about the traumatic brain injury. Also, what that loss of smell does is, smell of course is about life, and also about mortality, the loss of it’s about encroaching mortality.

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Mortality was a great thing that I wanted to put into the film as well, especially the enhanced rock star mentality. It was almost an advanced mid-life crisis when a rock star turns in their early thirties, are they going to be a one album wonder or are they going to have longevity like the Rolling Stones? The mortality thing, which the olive tree sequence represents was really important, but I got to say, I did not know that footage was there until it arrived. Also, the story, the story came from Bono in his interview. We had the footage of the olive trees and Bono’s story about the olive trees, which just came out of the blue in one of his stories.

I just went, wow, that’s extraordinary. A script writer couldn’t have thought of a better analogy of Michael’s fears, because by the time he knew Bono well, he’d already had the accident. He’s standing there in these olive groves, olive groves infamously last thousands of years, and he’s comparing himself to an olive tree and feeling his mortality, feeling his impending death. I felt it was very profound and moving.

Do you think an artistic person like Michael creates an artistic life?

Absolutely. Perhaps history shows him as sort of a flippant, lightweight rock and roller, and that’s one of the reasons I went into the film. I didn’t feel he was that at all. He lived a very singular life, and one of an artist, really. He’s not really, as they say, in it for the spoils of success. It’s not like he had 10 cars and mansions everywhere and just loved the money that was coming in. He was sort of like this vagabond who, towards the end, got to be a wealthy vagabond, but the importance of his life was a singularity, the vagabond artist who did want to sing and did want to perform, and did want to be loved by the masses.

When you feel that failing, it’s a very fragile existence. The ones that make an impact, that leave a footprint, usually they’re not the ones with an easy existence. They have this singularity. It’s not always the wife and kids and the nuclear family, all that’s just going to give them the answers to life. They’re searching, sometimes to their own detriment, into a world of darkness. They’re searching for something that they’re not quite sure what it is. Sometimes like a drug addict, and sometimes the two can go hand in hand, because their lives can be very similar.

There’s a Peter Pan aspect to him, but he was living an almost old-fashioned artistic life, like he dreamed about with his first girlfriend. Going to Amsterdam, starving in the garret while he’s writing obscure poetry. The poetry became the lyrics to pop songs and the money, certainly in the eighties, started flowing in. I think a lot of people tend to dismiss Michael. I mean, the songwriting, he’s no Bob Dylan or anything, but what I saw with the combination of performance and the lyrics to his pop songs. A lot of pop songs are about love, about sex, about breaking up. The combination of his performance and the sometimes quite simplistic love songs, but very effective songs, or pop songs was intoxicating.

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I’d seen people like the Rolling Stones perform. Prince was about the only other person I’ve seen fuse the performance with the songwriting to a level. I’ve worked with U2, fantastic band they are and everything, but the combination of songs and performance that Michael managed to put on. He wasn’t just standing at a mic like Oasis, he was working that stage in a very appealing and humble manner. It was quite an intoxicating event to see, to see INXS in their prime.

Do you think that he appreciated the fact that Oasis put INXS into the same category as the Beatles just by insulting them?

From what I hear and what I can see on the footage, he didn’t take it like that. He was suffering insecurity with success and mortality in that period. I think he took it as a serious jab. Interestingly enough, I just met Noel Gallagher about three weeks ago when he toured with U2 out of Australia. I actually got myself at a table with him. He was going “I don’t know, I really think I would have liked him, everyone tells me, me and Michael would have gotten on like a house on fire. I read in the paper he was flagging us off, and I just had this line in my head. Has-beens shouldn’t give awards to gonna-bes. It’s just one of those things, the line was in my head and it just had to come out. I regret it, I’ve regretted it ever since.”

He was right. Michael loved Oasis. In fact, when Michael played me that first Oasis album, he was like, “You got to listen to this.” The “Wonderwall” song. It was really quite devastating to have a new upcoming idol do that. He loved what was going on in the grunge scene. He felt he could write that way. Whether it’s Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Oasis. They’re a whole bunch of upstarts. He just embraced the new movement and wanted to be a part of it. To have almost like his idol say that was quite damaging.

At that point, he’d had his accident, he’d had a couple of years with no taste and smell. He was in a very fragile mental state, and very scared of mortality, especially in the pop world. As I said, it’s an accelerated thing in the pop world. By the time you’re 30, you’re an old has-been, as they say, has-been. I think it’s a good point you bring up, if that’d been explained to us, to him, that that’s kind of a compliment, now he’s in the world of Lennon, McCartney, and the Beatles, he might have taken it a bit differently.

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I never heard the Max Q, with Ollie Olson, stuff before.

Max Q was really Michael’s attempt to do content that related to what was happening in the late eighties and early nineties, and around the world. It wasn’t middle eighties bubble gum pop. It was new stuff, it wasn’t necessarily crushing guitars like Nirvana, but it was the stuff that he was influencing him, the Public Enemies. The producer they worked with on it. It was Michael’s attempt at a solo act, because sometimes six band members could stop you moving forward into areas you should. That’s where I think bands like U2 actually have almost liberation in the fact that they have four band members and the band’s direction is predominantly led by Edge and Bono.

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Max Q was really, if you look at it, if you cut his hair very much like the upcoming Brit pop bands, you start to journey into much more edgier music that pays homage to rap and dance, and everything that he loved growing up. Also, what was happening in the contemporary pop world that INXS didn’t allow him to do. He absolutely wanted to transform, and I think honestly, if he had had his creative control of the entire band, that was the direction he would have taken INXS0. I think it was Full Moon, Dirty Hearts, songs like “The Gift,” which is an obvious homage to Nirvana. It’s not really INXS, and it’s not where U2 went.

U2 went into sampling and electro funk, in that era with Zooropa TV and everything. That’s where Michael in particular was more comfortable. I do think you can actually learn a lot about him by looking at that next new album. That’s why I’ve been playing it so much in the film. It’s great music. It’s barely dated, and it was sort of unknown and unheard.

Your documentary shows a lot of the tensions that came because of that. I spoke with Tim Farriss, he didn’t seem like there was any problems at all in the band. He just missed them.

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Yeah, that’s understandable. I don’t think what is left behind with people like the band members and Tim in particular, is the bad stuff. There’s always squabbling with any family, and after the accident and the album that I just mentioned, Full Moon, Dirty Hearts, ’93, where he actually came directly from the accident into the recording studio. It was full of arguments and disturbing behavior from Michael, which the band members did talk about in the film. He was obviously damaged, brain damaged, he was obviously having trouble with something. In hindsight, especially with Tim who’s just a lovely, lovely man, he does miss him. He misses Michael as a friend. They were very close. They were probably the closest out of the entire band by the end of it.

Michael represented his future as a musician, as well. By doing what he did, Michael took away the band’s career. We know that they tried other singers, but honestly, INXS were only INXS when they had Michael Hutchence alive and at the front, whatever state he was in. I think in hindsight they would be the first to admit it. He misses all of it. Michael the person, Michael the singer, Michael the INXS member who enabled a career for everyone. It’s a very sad story. They want to celebrate the music, so he was talking positively.

I loved Kylie Minogue’s story about the faxed love notes. Do you think he got the nickname Swordfish from the Marx Brothers movie Horse Feathers?

You’re the second person who picked that up. A close friend of mine in New York picked it up. I do, actually, unless there’s a more X-rated version. He was a great film fan, film buff, I do think he got Swordfish from the Marx Brothers, from Groucho. There were surprising things about Michael. He did love the puns, with his fake name. You have to go into the hotel and say, “I’m here to see Mr. Murray River.” Murray River was the huge river that divides two Australian states. He would make up these silly names that would embarrass people going into hotels, you’d have to say things like that. Swordfish, I’m pretty sure came from the Marx Brothers.

He played Percy Shelley in Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound, why is that so perfect for him?

Yes, I think even though when you see his scenes in the film, it’s barely Shelley, I think it was interesting. I remember speaking to Bono about his Byronic aspects. Bono, probably being much more well-read than I am, said, “I don’t think he’s Byronic, I think he’s more like Shelley.” I think it’s just to do with his softness and gentleness. The poets were the rock stars of their time, and his theory was that a rock star, a current rock star, would be the best person to play the character and to get that sort of aspect across. Whether that comes out, I think it’s, to be honest it was only one day of shooting on that film.

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I remember when I first saw the film, I was expecting a story with Shelley going through the whole film. It’s just one day, a few little things, which I felt was quite a shame. Then the film turns into sort of Back to the Future-type nonsense. I do think there’s much more romance in a poet like Shelley than the Byronic thing that’s always put on Michael, when you see Michael in ’86 with the long hair. He talks about it in the film as wanting to get rid of after a certain bit of time. There was always this comparison to Byron, and the Byronic aspects of the long haired wild man. It really was, Shelley was almost typecasting.

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He was obviously good at keeping secrets. Do you think he ever really might have commissioned a Dorian Gray portrait of himself?

There was a portrait of himself at a birthday party that I think his sister got him. It’s a very strange portrait done in a very certain style. I don’t think he ever commissioned it. I think Michael loved being in his twenties, he loved that sort of carefree thing where you didn’t have to settle down, you could be this sort of vagabond in a world where there was youth and beauty. In your twenties you think you’re bulletproof, you’ve been indestructible. You can stay up all night, you can party. Your hangovers don’t come. Then your thirties hit, your first gray hair comes, and you feel like death after partying all night. Your body starts to feel the pain.

It’s interesting, if you look at some of the names of the songs over the catalog of INXS at different stages of Michael’s life, the actual song names tell a story. In the eighties, it’s all love, “I Need You Tonight,” “Breaking Up,” “The Love of a Beautiful Woman,” things you’d see in Kylie’s section. Then life gets more troubled, and the names of songs reflect that. “Taste It,” which was really about not tasting it. He’s very much writing about his own existence, and he charts his own existence in the names on the lyrics in the songs.

I think we have footage, it was a bit too X-rated to put in the film, but a girlfriend is filming him. He used to wander around stark naked, this is in ’85, ’86, he’s got the long golden locks. He’s literally a cliché, a golden god. He’s naked. He’s got the hair fading over his shoulders in this sort of perfect twenty-something body. It goes beyond anything pornographic, it’s just some European art movie of the seventies. You can see his whole persona. Everything’s just love, that essence of youth, that innocence before the troubles of adult life kick in. That’s kind of what his thirties were representing to him, the troubles of adult life, of growing up. Having to make relationships work on a much deeper level, the need for family and where you can just jump into someone else’s family and say, “This is fun, this is nice.”

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You’re not taking on the responsibility of a troubled life until you have your own daughter. That sort of blew him away, I’m not sure it literally changed him, but it changed a lot of his actions. It hit him like a brick wall. This is a daughter, this is a child that he has created and it ain’t going to go away. It’s not an affair that you can break up. You can’t break up with a child. They’re there until the end of days. I think that hit him with a real impact he wasn’t all that prepared for. He certainly enjoyed, in the small amount of time he was a father, he certainly enjoyed the connection in a world where he was feeling increasingly disconnected.

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Was the taxi driver in the bicycle accident ever charged in court?

No, the story from Helena is very clear. He got hit, as described in the film, falls, Helena rushes to him and the blood’s coming out of his nose and ear. The taxi driver just hops in his cab and drives off. The taxi driver had gotten out of the cab, but didn’t put his hand brake on and the cab actually rolled forward into a plate glass window. The pressure of the plate glass window is what made Helena’s head turn. She saw Michael on the ground, and she was running towards him, the taxi driver’s walking back to his cab, gets in, and drives off. She’s immediately calling the ambulance and basically thought he was dead. The taxi driver disappears and there was never any sort of way anyone could find him. She of course didn’t have the head space to take the number plate or anything like that.

She was concerned with getting Michael to a hospital. She was very detailed about that. She remembers cradling him and crying and screaming, and the ambulance comes. Then she’s in the back of the ambulance, she remembers the two paramedics driving the ambulance, making jokes about, “Isn’t that the famous rock star?” She yelled at them to take it seriously. In a weird sort of almost Faustian development: his own rock stardom caused the complete casual approach by hospital and paramedics at the scene. They just saw the rock star, even though they had to have seen the blood coming out of his nose and ears, and just said to themselves it was a rock star having a good night, or taking too many drugs or drinking too much. This happened at the hospital as well. Literally the story was they’d left Helena’s parents’ home and gone to get a slice of pizza.

Yet, the judgment was he was just on a bender so they just let him out and did not take it seriously. It was an incredibly tragic part of the story. It’s almost the persona, the mask you put on to say, this is what I do. I researched these doctors and specialists and, let’s say the hospital had treated it seriously. Could anything have been different? They all said yeah, if you’d given him anti-inflammatory drugs, you keep him under observation, you keep him in emergency and everything, the amount of damage that happens and the bleeding in the brain would have been much reduced, rather than what eventually happened, which was completely unchecked damage going on. The damage wasn’t necessarily immediately from the impact, it’s from the bleeding immediately in the brain following.

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That would have been hard to know what level it would have been in a different situation, but it certainly, under medical supervision, the traumatic brain injury would have been much reduced. Perhaps the situation would have been different. Helena couldn’t even remember, unfortunately, the name of the hospital they went to. We hit a brick wall with actually trying to find the hospital and actually see if there was any records.

You don’t show the people you’re interviewing. You show clips of the time period.

I started the interviews in 2009. Bono was the first one. I was filming them because I wasn’t quite sure of the film I was making. I just felt maybe I should have talking heads. But as the film progressed, it became very obvious to me that I wanted to create a journey of time traveling. I didn’t want to create this sort of perspective where you’re in the current age and you’re going back in time. So you see people in 2009 or 2019, whatever it’s going to be. You’re continually flashing forward and flashing back, or you’re in present day, then you’re back. I wanted to make an immersive journey. A hell of a lot of it was built by Michael, the shots of Kylie on the boat and the Orient Express.

It was a little like Michael was the cameraman of 50% of the footage that was coming in. I wanted to take you on a journey through his eyes, go back in time to the beginning, to the seventies and then through the eighties. Having a talking head that pulls you abruptly into the present day was just too distracting, it was too much context. I wanted people to go back into that era. Faces age but voices don’t age, so in a way if you have the voice of the band member or the manager or whatever, it’s almost like the voice is happening back then when the footage was filmed. There’s also a very practical reason, I had so much footage of Michael, and some never before seen in the recoding of that Max Q album.

I didn’t actually want to waste screen time with contemporary talking heads. I’m a great admirer of D.A. Pennebaker, who’s style has sort of an observational handheld 16mm, sort of being there, no talking heads and observational. He’s my idol, so a lot of it was paying homage to that style of documentary. Weirdly enough, I just saw Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love. It had actually shot a lot of the footage in that film, and some of it’s exactly the same as ours, almost, on the boat. There’s a shot of Marianne on the boat, on the water. Michael shooting in 16mm then shot on a boat in Hong Kong harbor with Kylie. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious thing, but it was quite extraordinary, the similarities.

Fathom Events will present Mystify: Michael Hutchence in theaters for one night only on Jan. 7.

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Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.

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