I recently went to see the documentary film about Amy Winehouse simply called “Amy”. I was curious to see it as I had always enjoyed her music and found her a sort of fascinating creature. The film depicts the life and death of the singer as well as her struggle with fame and addiction. It is directed by Asif Kapadia who also directed “Senna”. The movie has a slightly Shakespearean like quality to it from the get go because of course the audience already knows how it ends. This doesn’t stop us from willing her on or from hoping against hope that someone will ride in on a white horse and change her fate.
The film opens with a home movie featuring a 14 year old Winehouse singing Happy Birthday to her long time friend Lauren Gilbert. This footage serves as a quick reminder to the audience of the kind of talent that Winehouse possessed, a beautiful voice that was really beyond her years. From there on the film is a collection of mostly audio interviews with family members, friend, producers, managers etc, along side unseen video footage that is often accompanied by Amy’s own music in the background. Kapadia cleverly weaves together over a 100 interviews and video footage in a way that provides the audience with a rare insight into her life and career. From the outside it seems like the age old story of someone who was gripped by fame at an early age and died from addiction and access but in reality it’s not quite that simple. The old cliche doesn’t quite fit in this case.
The documentary first looks at Amy’s early life before she was famous. It seems that from the beginning she really did love music. She was heavily influenced by jazz musicians from previous era’s. She found it difficult to relate to the music of her own generation and therefore was left to create her own sound. Her idols were people like Tony Bennett, also featured in the documentary, Aretha Fraklin and Billy Holiday. Winehouse didn’t initially think of herself as a singer or that she would pursue music as a career. She new she was talented but saw her voice as a safety blanket. As something she would always have in reserve if she needed it. I think that it was her savour and possibly her method of escape before she was introduced to drugs and alcohol. I had assumed from what I knew of her big personality that Winehouse had wanted to be famous from an early age. In the video footage she is very outgoing, charming and funny. However this does not appear to be the case at all. Fame seemed to be a consequence of pursuing her talent rather than a desire.
The film first examines Winehouse’s childhood. In one interview she talks about her parents marriage. Her father was unfaithful to her mother when she was a child and this resulted in the break down of their marriage. Although her father is heard in one of the audio interviews saying that he thought Amy got over it very quickly it is clear as the film progresses that their break up had more of an affect on her than they thought. She adored her father and was really very let down when she discovered his infidelity. In one interview she confesses that she had been quite promiscuous and distrusting in her own relationships as a result of this event in her childhood. Her lyrics, which are projected onto the screen throughout the movie, show how insightful she really was and how much she observed about the world around her. They also expose the internal struggles that were going on inside her. This very affective method used in the film really showed her level of depth and insight. I recently read an interview with Van Morrison in the Irish Times where he said that in order to be an artist you have to be able to stand back and observe the world around you but once you become famous you can no longer do this in the same way. You become objectified and suddenly people are focousing on you instead of the other way around and this does’t allow the creative process to take its proper course. This reminded me of Winehouse and of the documentary because seeing her lyrics on screen showed that in the early days she really did have a lot of clarity when it came to her own issues.
What is it About Men
My Alibi, for taking your guy/History repeats itself/ It fails to die
Winehouse appeared to be an unruly teenager who seemed to test her boundaries and her mothers patience. In another interview her mother admits that Amy came to her at an early age and told her of her struggle with bulimia but she thought this was just a phase or a cry for attention and so she did nothing about it. She later realised that Amy was in fact suffering from a serious eating disorder and was regularly binging and purging. Amy was put on medication to help with her depression. Even before fame hit it seemed there were warning signs that addiction was taking hold. These issues were of course heightened when she was struck by fame.
The film goes on to track the singers rise and tragic fall. In 2003 her first album “Frank” was a critical success in the UK. It sold over a million copies and won an Ivor Novello Award as well as several other nominations and accolades. However it was her next album “Back to Black” which was released in 2006 that really allowed her to reach new levels of fame. She won five Grammy’s in 2008 for this album. Ironically the track that became most synonymous with Winehouse was called “Rehab”. It started out as a cheeky track that poked fun at the attention she was receiving from the media about her problems with drugs and alcohol but turned out to be a chilling insight into her personal struggle and refusal to get the help she desperately needed. The song also shifted the blame onto her father claiming that he didn’t believe she needed treatment.
They tried to make me go to rehab
I said, “no, no, no”/
Yes, I been black/
But when I come back,/ you’ll know, know, know
I ain’t got the time/
And if my daddy thinks I’m fine/
He’s tried to make me go to rehab/
I won’t go, go, go
Kapadia’s film also places much of the blame on Winehouse’s father Mitch as well as her husband Blake Fielder-Civil. Both men seemed to hop aboard the gravy train and enjoyed living off of Amy’s success. There is one heart breaking scene where Amy is on holidays in Saint Lucia attempting to recover from her drug abuse and instead of just going out to visit his daughter and taking care of her Mitch brings along a camera crew who are there to film a reality TV show about his life as Amy’s dad. As long as the money kept coming in he seemed happy to send her on tour long after she was even able to perform. It is not surprising that both parents have tried to distance themselves from the film and have made claims that they will sue Kapadia for portraying them in this way. Blake Fielder-Civil who married Winehouse in 2009 has stayed silent about the film in spite of the fact that he too comes off as someone who latched onto Amy as soon as she became famous, introduced her to cocaine and heroin and stood by as she self-destructed. It seems as though she was his meal ticket and he was not going to let that slip away. Her infatuation with her husband is frightening to watch especially as all signs seemed to suggest he was trouble from the beginning. Their love affair seemed to be her tragic flaw and the more she kept trying to join him and keep up with his drug taking the more dangerous it became. This toxic romance did ironically bring her a lot of success in her career as many of the songs on “Back to Black” chronicle the ups and downs of their volatile relationship.
Tears Dry on Their Own
We coulda never had it all/
We had to hit a wall/
So this is inevitable withdrawal.
Fielder-Civil is featured in the documentary by Amy’s side partying and enjoying the high life, at one point he even refers to the fact that she is paying for everything but when we see him later, after he has been in jail, he doesn’t seem to show any concern for her health or state of mind. It is remarkable to see how the crowds gathered like vultures around Winehouse but very few were there when she was really in trouble. The paparazzi and the media seemed to enjoy the feeding frenzy taking photos and making fun of her fragile state. There are a small number of old friends featured in the documentary who really tried to intervene but sadly their advise fell on deaf ears. Wherever the finger of blame is pointed however there is no doubt that she did play a major part in her own down fall. Her addictive, obsessive personality and her uneasy relationship with fame added even more pressure and she was eventually crushed under its weight of it. Unfortunately Amy Winehouse joined the ranks of the 27 club on the 23rd of July 2011 along side Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, Jim Morrison and so forth when she was found dead in her London home in Camden. The cause of death was said to be alcohol poisoning.
“Amy” is not the first film of its kind designed to serve as a cautionary tale on the trappings of fame and too much success at a young age but it does have several unique traits. The way in which its made is not like any other I have seen. I have to credit Kapadia for this intimate style of filming for it really did make this story all the more poignant and heart breaking to watch. The candid interviews along with footage of Amy herself and of course her music, invited the audience into her world for the duration of the film. I was left feeling utterly saddened and angry by the wasted talent that Amy took with her when she died and by what she could have achieved if she had received the right help. Although it is a tragic story I was glad to be reminded of her talent and I hope others who see the film will too.