(Photo: ‘Amy Winehouse at Bowery Ballroom 18’ by Daniel Arnold)
Amy Winehouse (1983-2011) often appeared to be a figure out of time: a jazz singer in the age of pop, a young woman – as someone describes her in Asif Kapadia’s moving movie – with an old soul. This documentary about her life is, in contrast, as modern as they come, relying heavily on material recorded on video cameras and mobile phones, dispensing with the usual talking heads in favor of laying audio from interviews over an apparently limitless supply of footage and stills from her short life, as we’re led with sometimes painful patience through her rise to fame and fall into a collection of ultimately fatal addictions.
On one level, the film might be seen as a study of Amy’s face. All the cameras seem to be both fascinated and disoriented by it: those ever-present stripes of eyeliner; that gaggle of teeth in her over-sized smile; the threat of dark down on lip and jaw; the black eyes that every once in a while ignite with delicious, irresistible mischief. It’s a face that asks you what beautiful is and takes the piss out of your answer.
Aside from the look, her extraordinary voice is of course what everyone remembers, but the film also highlights the disarming and distinctive poetry of Amy’s lyrics, snippets of which appear throughout, written in a notebook in her schoolgirl hand, amid crossings-out and doodled hearts. Without contrivance or embellishment, her words alight on truth after rarely-spoken truth about the complexities of being a young woman in the last decade: one minute vulnerable, swaggering the next, heartbroken then cold of heart. (“I couldn’t resist him, his eyes were like yours, his hair was exactly the shade of brown. He’s just not as tall, but I couldn’t tell, it was dark and I was lying down…”).
Biographies are always tricky, bringing with them the nagging suspicion that the view presented could be partial, that certain elements of the story might have been given undue emphasis while others may have been underplayed or forgotten. Kapadia has stressed in interviews that he approached the subject with total objectivity but, however much we trust him, and in spite of the film’s extensive use of primary material, I was left with questions about the completeness of the story. Amy’s father, for example, emerges as one of the clear villains of the piece (alongside her husband, Blake), and has strongly and publicly rejected the film, and while there are elements of his negative portrayal that seem difficult to explain – particularly the episode when he arrives on St Lucia to visit his daughter during her rehabilitation, bringing along a TV crew – one still wonders if the account could, as he alleges, be somewhat unbalanced. The only time we hear Amy talk about his role in her life during her childhood, it’s to say that he was absent and disengaged (he started an affair when she was 18 months old but didn’t leave her mother for another eight years). Yet she clearly acquired her love of jazz partly from him and, for good or ill, they remained very close throughout her life. In sharp contrast, her childhood friends come across as unerringly and selflessly supportive, with no hint of the jealousy or resentment that might naturally arise when one in a group acquires substantial fame, money and success. That could be the simple truth of it, but I felt compelled to wonder.
The movie invites us to reflect on whether there are wider lessons we might learn from Amy’s sad story. Lightning storms of camera flashes and gangs of pot-bellied paparazzi stumbling down alleyways remind us, if we needed reminding, of the unpalatable side of the fame to which, it seems, she never really aspired, and we get a sense of the duller reality of an artist’s life behind the gloss and glamour: singing the same songs again and again, the treadmill of banal interviews (the Dido one is a particular treat), and periods of eerie quiet when you sit and hope for genius to visit and deliver you that next album the execs are baying for. There’s also a handful of clips of TV comedians making jokes at Amy’s expense during the period when her addictions were at their most ferocious, notably Frankie Boyle describing her as resembling “a campaign poster for neglected horses”. If their inclusion is intended to imply that these comedians were somehow complicit in Amy’s fate, I think that’s unfair. In our current celebrity culture, public figures are fair game for this level of mockery and if we don’t like it we, as a society, have a collective responsibility to change it. We can’t put that on the comedians. And individual celebrities do have the option to remove themselves (very largely) from the public eye. It’s not impossible to do. The tragedy for Amy was that those she trusted most, who had by far the greatest power over her actions and decisions, failed to protect her and her privacy, and she, having fallen victim to her own vulnerability to addiction, was not strong enough to make that choice for herself. If there’s a clear lesson we can draw from her life, it’s not, I think, about the media or the burden of fame. It’s about our understanding of and responses to people with mental illness – people for whom the pressures of fame, if they happen to be subjected to them, will likely prove too much. In one chilling moment in the film, we hear Amy’s mother describe the moment when her daughter, aged 15, told her she’d discovered a great new diet, which involved throwing up everything she ate. In spite of the fact that she was already on anti-depressants, both her parents brushed it off as a temporary phase. One can only hope that today, 15 or so years on, they might have dealt with it differently.
Despite these reservations, overall I found the film an impressive piece of work, successful in immersing the viewer in Amy’s world and music. A few days after watching it, the scene that sticks with me the most is a home video shot by a longtime friend, arriving for a vacation in a villa somewhere in the Mediterranean after the release of Amy’s first album. Amy opens the front door and takes her friend on a tour of the house, expertly playing the part of the Spanish housemaid left to her own devices while her lady employer is out. She gets the accent and the airy gestures perfectly, and is as funny as we might have hoped on the basis of her lyrics. (Opening a tiny high cupboard: “That’s where I sleep”. Pointing to a plastic hook in the shower: “That’s where I sleep when I’ve been bad”). Cheekily, she brandishes a small bag of weed at the camera. This was before she really blew up, and she seemed happy.