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The Joy And Sadness At The Heart Of Michael Gudinski Documentary ‘Ego’

31 August 2023 | 3:09 pm | Jeff Jenkins

“A story about connection, of music bringing people together.”

Ed Sheeran and Michael Gudinski

Ed Sheeran and Michael Gudinski (Credit: Brian Purnell)

How do you make a film about God?

That’s what one viewer pondered after seeing a screening of a rough cut of Ego: The Michael Gudinski Story. He was only half-joking. The challenge for director Paul Goldman and producer Bethany Jones was immense. How do you tell the story of Australian music’s most influential character?

When they embarked on this epic journey, their lead character was alive and planning the documentary to celebrate Mushroom’s 50th anniversary. But when you’re making a movie about life, life happens. COVID struck, shutting down the music industry. And then Michael Gudinski died suddenly.

The documentary became much more than just a celebration of 50 years of the Mushroom Group. And via a mountain of archival footage and photos – credit to co-producer Paige McGinley – the music mogul still dominates the screen.

Everyone interviewed for the film was asked: If Michael Gudinski was in a band, what instrument would be play? The responses didn’t make the final cut, but they reveal much about the man.

Vika Bull: “He’d be the lead singer.”

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Linda Bull: “He couldn’t be up the back.”

Vika: “There’s no other place for Michael, but centre stage.”

Ray Evans, Mushroom co-founder: “He couldn’t be second fiddle.”

Ross Wilson: “No, Michael Gudinski would never be in a band.”

Michael Chugg: “I don’t think he could do anything.”

Lee Simon: “Two things you never want Michael to do – sing, drive a car. Disaster.”

Jimmy Barnes: “He had the worst voice in the world. And I said, ‘You shouldn’t sing even in the shower. Don’t sing anywhere.’”

Neil Finn: “In that band Pavement, they had a guy who just plays the drums for a couple of songs and then goes out the front and just rants at the audience. He’s probably one of those guys.”

Jimmy Barnes: “I’d be in that band. I’d be his drummer, so I could sit at the back and throw things at him.”

While working on Molly Meldrum’s memoirs, I had a strange fight with Molly over a document (it’s a long story). He was literally tugging at one end; I was tugging at the other.

“Just give it to him,” Gudinski ordered Molly. “Let him do his fucking job!”

In that moment, I understood why the Mushroom staff loved working for Gudinski.

He was smart enough to surround himself with good people – and let them do their jobs. And he rewarded loyalty. A famous Gudinski quote: “You can stab me in the front, but never stab me in the back.”

Ego shows that while Gudinski loomed large over the entire company, the Mushroom Group was no one-man band, with crucial contributions from the record company’s co-founder Ray Evans; the boss of Premier Artists, Frank Stivala; the Frontier Touring Company’s Michael Chugg; financial director Philip Jacobsen; Amanda Pelman, who signed Kylie; the late label boss Warren Costello; as well as Gudinski’s son, Matt, who joined the business straight from high school in 2003 and is now Chief Executive.

At the recent RocKwiz Salutes Mushroom show, Brian Nankervis asked Chuggi – Gudinski’s friend, partner and sometimes rival – what the mogul’s biggest strength was. “His love of Australian music and never taking fucking no for an answer,” Chuggi replied.

Gudinski’s never-ending passion for new music is one of Ego’s themes. He remained loyal to the label’s legends – even after some had long ceased having hits – but he never stopped chasing the next big thing.

He was just as excited about The Temper Trap’s Sweet Disposition as he was about Yothu Yindi’s Treaty, Split Enz’s I Got You and SkyhooksLiving In The 70’s.

Didirri was the last act Gudinski signed. A week before he died, he called the artist. Didirri recalls hearing static on the line before a grizzled voice said, “I’m fucked. Is that Didirri?”

Gudinski’s words to his new signing were simple: “You’re young. You’re talented. I’ve heard your songs. Let’s make something happen.” And that’s what Gudinski did. He made things happen.

Skyhooks’ Red Symons – who features prominently in Ego and contributes an elegiac quote about how Gudinski was “borrowing energy from the future” – once told me that the Mushroom boss “should not pretend to be anything but the businessman that he is”. And he was a very smart businessman.

Not many people get the better of Rupert Murdoch, but Gudinski did. He managed to sell the one part of his business that wasn’t making money – the record label. He retained the profitable parts – his publishing company and touring company – as well as Mushroom’s head office.

The deal made Gudinski rich and he could have comfortably retired. But it also left him personally devastated. He’d lost what he loved. So, what did he do? He put the band back together and started another record company. And he did more tours.

Deborah Conway dubbed him God-inski. But even God rested on the seventh day. As Symons observes, most people happily plant the flag at the top of the mountain; Gudinski went looking for bigger mountains.

“There has to be a reason why he did it,” Dave Grohl says in Ego.

Does the documentary explain everything about what made Michael Gudinski tick? No. But what does drive a leader like Gudinski? It can never be fully explained or understood. As Bruce Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau notes, he was a complex man of many moods.

“He was not as damaged as me,” his great friend Jimmy Barnes believes, “but he had points to prove.”

The mogul was a mass of contradictions. He was wildly ambitious and longed to have a number one in the US. But he loved Melbourne and refused to live anywhere else. He couldn’t play a note – his first words in the documentary are, “You can obviously see I can’t play any music” – but he made music his life. He loved having hits, but hanging out with Muddy Waters in the ’70s taught him that it was “not about hit records but great records”.

He could be a ruthless competitor – “Gudinski isn’t liked by everyone, I can tell you,” Ray Evans remarks – but he “forged very personal relationships”, according to Garbage’s Shirley Manson. And he always seemed to give an act just one more shot when other labels would have quickly moved on. Hunters & Collectors didn’t hit the Top 10 until their fourth studio album; for Split Enz it didn’t happen until their fifth. That’s commitment and belief.

Gudinski was involved in a business where fashion matters, but his friend Lee Simon observes, “From time to time, he looked like a homeless person.”

Paul Kelly once called Gudinski “the most inarticulate man I’ve ever met”. Kylie says she “had to learn how to speak ‘Gudinski’”, and Dave Grohl admits, “I never understood one word that motherfucker said to me.” But he was a great communicator.

Barnesy said Gudinski was “ridiculous, compulsive, obsessive – and they’re just his good points”.

He had an ego, but he “treated everyone as his equal”, Shirley Manson says. He was a compelling solo act, but he did his best work as a member of a band.

Ego reveals much, but in many ways, Gudinski remains an enigma.

Just sit back and enjoy the ride. And be grateful that a 19-year-old guy somehow had the ego to take the “crazy risk” and launch a record company in Australia in the 1970s.

Michael Gudinski is the man who created a nation’s mixtape. As an Australian music fan, you’ll leave the cinema thinking, “I’m a part of that story.”

That’s the legacy.

Of course, it’s an Australian story, but after seeing the documentary at the Melbourne International Film Festival, an American friend remarked, “I didn’t really know Gudinski, but I can see this playing overseas. There’s a bigger meaning to this movie. It’s a story about connection, of music bringing people together.”

As Dave Grohl explained, “Every experience we ever had with Gudinski was a celebration of some kind. I always considered it a celebration of life.”

That sense of joy leaps from the screen as you realise we’re witnessing a man who never lived life at half-speed. He made things happen. And Ego shows that he had a good time doing it. “He loved his job the way I love mine,” Bruce Springsteen said. “He was a music man.”

Watching the documentary with an audience for the first time, I was surprised by how many laughs there were in the cinema – Gudinski was often very funny, sometimes unintentionally. But there’s an overwhelming sadness at the heart of Ego as well. The lead character created an empire that has survived for 50 years, but he didn’t get to celebrate the anniversary or see the movie.

He would have loved it.

Jeff Jenkins worked as a researcher on Ego: The Michael Gudinski Story. It opens in cinemas nationwide today (August 31).