From great pain comes great genius. And let’s not muck about, Amy Winehouse, the gobby girl from North London, the unassuming jazz singer, had both in buckets.
This documentary – directed by Asif Kapadia, the man who brought us Senna a few years back – charts her life through mostly previously unseen footage in a compelling and deeply affecting way.
I’ll say from the outset I was – and still am – a big fan.
I loved her music, that unique and beguiling voice, the darkness she carried that came out in her lyrics and – this may seem callous but – I cannot think of another artist that, if they died, I’d be that cut up about. There was obviously something about her that spoke to me.
Darkness, pain, loneliness, vulnerability – these things can mean a lot to a lot of people and Amy was our figurehead. When she died it was a shock, although the act not shocking in itself. More that maybe it hadn’t happened sooner, in a way, given the media frenzy which surrounded her later years (which we’ll come to in a bit).
With Amy we get a detailed insight into her inner circle, the people closest to her and how her eventual demise came to pass. From her friends and various managers and producers to her absent family, all seemed to play a part in trying to help her get back on track, but almost all ultimately failed her in some way.
And some more than others.
The person that got cast in the worst light was probably her father, Mitch Winehouse (who came out after the film’s release, surprisingly enough, saying he wanted the filmmakers to make changes). With her most famous song, Rehab, directly referencing the fact he told her not to go, he had dealt his own hand in terms of how he wanted to be portrayed as a father. This absenteeism as a role model for Amy continued right up until the end.
In fact, time and again Kapadia comes back to clips that illustrate the fact that most of Amy’s darkness and self-destructive impulses stemmed from the lack of a father figure in her life. Starting with Mitch leaving the family to have an affair whilst she was growing up, she then spent the rest of her life trying to replace him, either with boyfriends/husbands (Blake Fielder-Civil being the worst of the bunch) or managers and producers or, near the end, bodyguards.
The media also comes under Kapadia’s scrutiny (and rightly so), with the rise of the paparazzi scrum hounding her every move directly contributing to her downward spiral. (In some ways the same thing happened with Princess Diana, so it’s clear we’ll never learn.) In this Kapadia makes us complicit, we’re just as much to blame as anyone within her inner circle. We buy the magazines and read the tabloids and gobble up all the sordid details of her destruction like sharks out for blood.
The sucker punch, the killer blow if you will, was that Amy almost turned a corner right before the end. She did a duet with her idol Tony Bennett (who said she was up there with greats like Ella Fitzgerald) and she planned, by the looks of it, to return to her jazz roots. But then, in a flash, it was all over.
If you were a fan of Amy Winehouse you’ll most likely find the film engaging and insightful. If you weren’t, you’ll still get something from it, as it’s a fascinating look at the recent and tragic demise of a modern-day musical genius and the factors that contributed to her downfall.
Kapadia seems to have treated the material sensitively and portrayed Amy in a sympathetic light. Whether you choose to – as I do – feel a little responsible and quite disgusted by the way the world ended up treating her will be up to you.
For me, it made me raw again that she’s gone. But this was an important film to make and the story needed to be told.
Rest in peace Amy. We’ll miss you, always.