23rd of July 2011 will forever be in my memory. For starters, it was the day I finally managed to get myself a laptop after getting a huge tax rebate from the government. Just after finishing university and slogging down at the library to write my dissertation, little known fact, libraries do have opening hours, so writing by hand throughout the night then typing up in the short space of time I could get before the librarian kicked me out during the day. I logged into my new shiny laptop and opened up my browser and saw the headlines… ‘Amy Winehouse dead at 27’. I could have sworn I felt my heart break, like actually break into pieces. I saw the police swarming around her flat, in my familiar stomping grounds in Camden, North London then I saw her body in a red bag being put into a coroners car. I was devastated.
Amy explores her life from her teenage years right up until her funeral. Her troubled existence, her tormented relationships with the media, the men in her life and her father and her exceptionally huge talent in a sea of mediocrity in British music at the time. I have to admit, I didn’t hear Frank her first studio album when it came out, I first heard Back to Black, and it stayed with me. I related to the lyrics on a really personal level. Her tortured poetry, her self-loathing, aggressive, desperation; I’m sure all women have been devoured at one point or another by overwhelming emotional torment. She spoke to me in ways that Britney could not. The linearity of Amy naturally starts in her teenage years, singing ‘Happy birthday’ to a friend in her raw, sultry tones as a fifteen year old. Audiences are invited to see her near-effortless entry into the music world, signed pretty much straight away, based on two songs. Snippets of old interviews highlight her outspoken and unapologetic attitude, in one particular interview, she pretty much shuts down a reporter who’s bleating on about Dido, simply through derisory facial expressions. This woman did not have time for bullshit, and this is what comes across so refreshingly about Winehouse. Toward the height of her drug fuelled lifestyle, she was painted as this aggressive, unfeminine mess who would probably kick the shit out of you. The constant media hounding, the portrayal of her downfall became increasingly pornographic, perverse, wrong. But we are awarded this uncompromising view of a woman, who was very intelligent, very witty and at least on the face of it, outwardly confident in her own skin. These glimpses into Amy’s life before the fame hit her like a tonne of bricks is charming, she was like a child, eager to impress, but not willing to change herself to fit in. Mostly made up through home-videos shot by friends and family, however, the darkness begins to creep in, and shapes and tells the story of the Amy many would dismiss and make jokes out of.
One thing that did surprise me, was the mention throughout about Amy’s eating habits. I simply assumed her petite frame was due to the drug abuse, but what lurked beneath, since the age of 13 was a lifelong battle with bulimia. A snippet of her mother explaining the bulimia suggests that she thought nothing of it when Amy said ‘Mum, I’ve got a great diet. You can eat what you want, then all you do is bring it back up again’, both her mother and father dismissed it as a teenage phase that she’d grow out of, a teenage phase that never passed, and ultimately contributed to her death. This is probably one of the first indications that Amy was never really supported by those who should have been in the best position to help her. Further indication that the old adage of the loneliest place to be is when you’re surrounded by people was Amy’s existence. Further still, Amy goes on to say that growing up her mother and absent father, the *delightful* Mitch Winehouse, never told her ‘no’, she grew up without boundaries, and truly believed that she could do whatever she wanted. When she moved out of the family home, she says how amazing it was that she had her own flat, where she could smoke weed all day without being bothered. Despite coming from a relatively normal working class British background, normalcy never seemed to be present within Amy’s life, was she doomed from the day she was born? Or does this contribute to her talent, a talent which goes beyond any construct of normal and will never be described as ‘normal’?
As the film goes on, we are reminded of some of Amy’s fellow tabloid companions, including Blake Fielder-Civil, who openly admits that he was the one who introduced her to crack-cocaine and heroin during their tempestuous marriage. Those famous images of Amy’s bloody pink silk ballet pumps and bandages all over her arms as she walks with Blake draped around her shoulders with blood and grazes all over his face have become synonymous in British tabloid history. They had an absolute field day with this very public, very violent breakdown of Mr and Mrs Rock and Roll of North London. What comes across so strongly in the film is the utter relentlessness of the paparazzi who hound Amy Winehouse, they constantly follow her, the blinding lights of flashing cameras becomes unbearable, almost like a visceral reminder in some ways, the way we allowed this to happen, we created demand for images of a woman who was broken. And interestingly it was brought up in the live Q&A of the screening of Amy I saw, that it’s not normal for old men (paps) to hound a young woman in the street, chasing her, screaming and shouting at her, saying things like ‘cheer up love’ as she tries to battle her way through crowds to get in her car. In one piece of footage, she is clearly high or drunk, when one of the paps knocks into her now infamous beehive hairstyle. In her hazy state, she wrongly assumes it was a different photographer, whilst the original guy gets out of her way. She yells at him, lunges for him, and they laugh and snigger as she can barely hold her head upright. Amy does more than show us the picture of a woman who desperately tries to hide herself away from paps, but holds the mirror up to the audience and says ‘do you think this is right? If not, do you think this is one of the reasons why she was so troubled? and furthermore, are you going to create demand for these types of images?’.
One of the most telling stories to come out of Amy is her *delightful* father’s reaction to the film, which he has since stated is ‘incredibly misleading’. He’s somehow assumed that the footage of him bringing his film crew for his own reality TV show whilst Amy had her first shot at getting clean off drugs and some time away from the British press, somehow created a negative image of him not helping his daughter. I don’t want to risk being sued (not that I think I will be, but stranger things have happened, besides I have a two figure sum in my bank account right now because I’m unemployed, so good luck trying to get ‘damages’ out of me), the fact that unedited footage and witness accounts of his behaviour surrounding her tours and gigs is overtly negative, leads me to think that yeah, Mitch, you could have done more. In the interest of fairness, it will never be known by the audience if footage of Mitch on his knees begging Amy to quit touring and book herself into rehab whilst he assumed responsibility of her public persona is still on the cutting room floor, but I’m willing to put money on the fact that it’s not. There is no smoke without fire. And another issue this raised for me, was the final segments of the film state, that Amy died of alcohol poisoning and complications from her bulimia. Mitch has stated that he’s worried that this film will damage the work of his charity that he set up in her memory, helping young people with the effects of drugs, in my opinion, further capitalising on this horrific caricature that he helped create. If the charity had been about youth alcohol dependency and eating disorders, it wouldn’t have been noticed, because these struggles with Amy were private. Everyone assumed it would be the drugs that killed her eventually, but it wasn’t. It was the uninteresting, certainly in terms of tabloid coverage, issues of dependency on alcohol post-drug-addiction and the ever unglamourous eating disorder bulimia. Make of Mitch’s inclusion what you will, that’s the beauty of artistic expression, each to their own, but whether or not it’s intended, the film makes very clear one of the contributing factors to Amy’s downfall, you only have to see the final humiliating Belgrade performance to make a concrete decision on that.
Amy is unflinching, desperately heartbreaking, funny and a bold look at one of the most interesting and talented women of my generation. In the months before her death, when she had sobered up, was healthy and looking as if things were finally going her way, she recorded her final album with one of her heroes, Tony Bennett. She’s shy, embarrassed almost at having to sing in front of him, and in a particularly poignant moment, she walks away from him saying ‘I’m so sorry, I don’t want to waste your time’. It’s devastating. This final glimpse of Amy, the truest version of herself, even after the tumultuous drug-addled tabloid years, she’s still a baby, a child in this alien situation, filled with fears of not being worthy of the position she finds herself in. Humble and raw, we are reminded of what makes her so special, the truest feminine voice of the past 15 years in British culture, and it makes me desperately wish that she was still alive today. Whilst I mourn her physical death, it is always a comfort to me that I can type her name into my computer, and find her soul in her music, music that I connected to on such a personal level, and music that I will take with me throughout my entire life. She provided a soundtrack to the darkest side of femininity, her words, her musicality is something so special, so unique, she’ll never truly be gone.
Whether you’re a fan, love her, hated her, I urge you to watch this film. The portrayal of someone who was idolised, mocked then finally mourned is fascinating and honest and worthy of all the high-praise it’s received. Take your tissues, take a friend and absorb everything about this incredible woman who changed the face of female singers forever.