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The tormented Jewish heart buried inside Gudinski’s frenetic ego

Julie Szego
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The tormented Jewish heart buried inside Gudinski’s frenetic ego

Published: 8 September 2023

Last updated: 12 March 2024

A new biopic shows how family grief drove the music mogul to succeed - and bathes a generation of Australians in the glorious soundtrack of their youth.

At the centre of the Mushroom-authorised documentary on Australia’s chief music mogul, Ego: the Michael Gudinski Story, is a silence all the more conspicuous for the ceaseless noise in which its enveloped.

We’re all armchair psychoanalysts and the biographical documentary, by definition, invites us to ponder what makes the person tick; in this instance a person who, at his sudden and untimely death two years ago, was chief executive of the Mushroom Group he co-founded in 1973, now the largest independent music and entertainment company in Australia, home to eight record labels and more than two dozen specialist divisions as well as Frontier Touring and Chugg Entertainment.

As director Paul Goldman intimates early on in his 105-minute tribute – a torrent of star-studded anecdotes, clips of iconic artists in sweaty ecstasy on stage, triumphal aerial shots of stadiums packed with screeching fans — Michael Gudinski’s story really began before his birth with his sister, believed to have been murdered as a baby in Nazi-occupied Lithuania and basically never spoken of again.

His father kicked him out of home after he dropped out of school and sneered when one of his companies went into liquidation.

We imagine her absence was a daily presence in the Gudinski family abode near Caulfield racetrack, where at age seven the future entrepreneur began charging punters for parking on the empty block next door. For what else could explain Gudinski senior’s steadfast and cruel disapproval of his son but crippling grief and guilt over his lost daughter?

Gudinski’s father, a civil engineer, reacted with scorn when at 15 his son was making $500 a week staging dances. He kicked Gudinski out of home after he dropped out of school, sneered when one of his companies went into liquidation — “that’s my bum of a son” — and then when one day he saw his son doing the books assumed he was handling “monopoly money,” which was, linguistically at least, not inaccurate.

Over a boozy lunch in 1975, Gudinski was one of five men who between them stitched up Melbourne’s music business; when competition emerged, we’re told, “Michael would effectively wipe it out”.

What else could explain Gudinski’s constant searching for the next big thing, his “borrowing energy from the future,” as one of the talking heads described it, other than the need for paternal affirmation? Alas, Gudinski senior had already passed by 1989 when Frontier brought out Frank Sinatra; Michael lamented that it was the one concert his father would have happily attended.

When Gudinski found himself moved beyond words by Archie Roach’s Took The Children Away, his autobiographical hymn to the Stolen Generations, we might understand why he so readily empathised with the subject matter.

But these threads are subterranean to the frenetic “blink and you miss it” surface narrative, propelled by Gudinski’s business associates, a who’s who of musical giants, from Sting to Billy Joel, Dave Grohl to Ed Sheeran, and most of all by Gudinski himself through interviews across the decades.

It’s fast — all tell, no show — but then, Gudinski was fast, one of the few people who could keep up with Jimmy Barnes on tour where things happened that we’re, thankfully I suspect, not told about.

With Ed Sheeran
With Ed Sheeran

The story Gudinski tells is one of enduring gratitude for Australia, the country that gave his family a fresh start, and one that had to be lifted out of the cultural cringe that prevailed in the late 1960s.

We race from Gudinski’s first big risk, the three-day 1973 Sunbury music festival, where he made a killing on the watermelon stand, through to his sterling judgment calls - Skyhooks, Split Enz, Hunters and Collectors. There are his near misses: he had to be talked round to giving a floundering Paul Kelly another chance and was initially “sceptical” of Kylie.

His hard fails: he “passed” on Men at Work and Cold Chisel, atoning for the latter with Barnsey’s solo albums, and was caught off-guard by the indie music wave in the 1990s. His sellouts: sellout concert extravaganzas of the new century — Kylie redux, Bruce Springsteen at Hanging Rock — and his selling of Mushroom to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp empire, which some artists in his stable certainly thought of as “selling out”.

With Jimmy Barnes and Molly Meldrum
With Jimmy Barnes and Molly Meldrum

Perhaps his biggest achievement was breaking the cycle of remoteness and emotional withholding in his family of origin: his son Matt has gone proudly into daddy’s business as Mushroom Group’s CEO, he and Gudinski’s daughter, Kate, seem remarkably grounded despite a childhood spiced with their father haimishly welcoming every drug-addled superstar into their home.

And perhaps it is no coincidence that Gudinski died during the stop-start pandemic years when he found himself forcibly grounded, silence ringing in his ears, staging virtual concerts to support musicians and frontline workers. The man, Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau tells us, had his “demons.”

Various interviewees express anger about what they imply are rumours about Gudinski’s death: he was only on “painkillers” at the time, they insist. As a journalist I’m duty bound to call out that untruth: the death certificate cited mixed drug use, including cocaine, oxycodone and morphine.

But I did not respond to this hagiography as a journalist, which suggests I’m miscast as a reviewer. From the opening track — the Models’ hypnotic I Hear Motion — I was racing through my own Melbourne youth as a child of Holocaust survivors. My parents never took me to the football but the music Gudinski brought me, back in the pre-internet days when young people were all listening to the same music, made me feel I belonged here.

And now my own children are the same age as I was then, listening to their own soundtrack of heartache and hope — and the country faces the metaphorical challenge of synthesising the poetry of Archie Roach and Yothu Yindi into a permanent Voice in the nation’s constitution.

And for these and God knows what other reasons, I lingered in the cinema, tears streaming, until well after the credits rolled and the last beats of the eponymous Ego is Not a Dirty Word faded.

About the author

Julie Szego

Julie Szego is a freelance writer and columnist for The Age/SMH. Her non-fiction book, The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama, was shortlisted for the Victorian and NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for 2015.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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