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Ego: The Michael Gudinski Story Review – MIFF 2023

Director Paul Goldman aims for the impossible in summing up the life of a legend.
Ego: The Michael Gudinski Story

When Jimmy Barnes and his daughter Mahlia first heard the shocking news that omnipresent music mogul Michael Gudinski had died in his sleep, aged only 68, they were so distraught that they leapt on the first flight to Melbourne to be with his family. Their family, really, as a host of Australian and international rock and pop stars line up to insist in Paul Goldman’s elegiac tribute to the man and his outsize myth, Ego: The Michael Gudinski Story.

Debuting across no fewer than three cinemas at the Melbourne International Film Festival and with a host of stars present, the glammed-up turnout proves just how much the mighty co-founder of Mushroom Records, Liberation Music and Frontier Touring’s burning passion for Australian music, musicians and filmmakers meant to so many. 

Barnes levels that he sincerely doubts he’d have beaten his demons and still be here if it weren’t for Gudinski’s unwavering support through thick and thin, even when he cheekily pretended he was going to branch out into country music for his solo debut. Kylie Minogue will never forget how Gudinski overcame his resistance to embracing pop and stood by her side, never once arguing as she took more control of her increasingly glittering career. Bruce Springsteen credits the man with breathing new life into his Australian appearances and is on the same page as Sting regarding how much it meant to be welcomed into the Gudinski family bosom. 

Image: Mushroom Studios

Gudinski’s drive saw him and his devoted wife Sue, a lovely presence here, hitting three or four gigs a week. He didn’t just scour his favourite haunt, the Forum. Vance Joy was discovered by Gudinski playing a tiny cafe to an audience of 12, with Ed Sheeran to a room of not much more. The physical intimacy of these young men with the much older Gudinski speaks to a fatherly energy he gave off, or perhaps more like a big brother, with Sheeran noting that he felt they were on the same level despite the age gap. 

The impresario was obviously concerned with legacy and deeply regretted selling Mushroom to Murdoch before starting all over again, but as this fairly frenetically paced doco penned by Goldman with Sara Edwards and Bethany Jones briefly slows to note, he had his eye on a bigger picture than his bank balance or even fun barbecues with celebrity mates. It wasn’t just about business, even though he was inarguably driven, as his son Matt shares of stepping into the family game.

Focusing on his love for the late, great Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter alongside Yothu Yindi underlines how invested he was in representing a broader understanding of Australian music to the world. Christine Anu shares how much his belief in platforming Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander performers meant to her and, in chorus with the likes of Vika & Linda and Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson, how refreshing it was to witness the amount of matriarchal energy at play in his companies and his respect for them as performers, not playthings. 

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Zipping through some of the most exciting moments in Australian music history while barely catching its breath, as with such docos, some things aren’t expanded upon as much as you might hope. Gudinski’s support for filmmakers like Australian Rules director and Ghosts… of the Civil Dead cinematographer Goldman are only briefly touched on, with the director’s occasional frenemy feuds with Gudinski largely absent. It opens with a startling revelation about a horrific tragedy that occurred to his family as they were fleeing the Nazis for Australia, but while there are a couple of hints that Gudinski would sometimes zone out into a darker place, there’s no real wrangling with what may have involved intergenerational trauma. There is undoubtedly a sense that even his very best – and by goodness, how much he achieved and the love he accumulated – might never have been enough for him. 

Image: Mushroom Studios

Ego is exactly what you would expect, a rollicking rock, pop and roll fanfare for a life well lived that’s packed with big hitters paying their dues. Awesome gig footage and archival interviews are boosted by animated flourishes from Keke Robertson and Andres Gomez Isaza. You’ll also hear plenty from Gudinski himself, a man never shy of a camera and a promotional opportunity, whether for himself and his companies or the many stars who orbited around him. And if it’s a teeny bit indulgent, he sure earned it. His life’s work will not soon be forgotten. 

Ego: The Michael Gudinski Story is screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival and will release nationally on August 31.