Amy’s new film shows tragedy of London star
A new documentary showing the life and death of Amy Winehouse tells a heartbreakingly familiar story: a struggling artist who died too soon. Does society glamorise self-destruction?
‘I don’t think I’m gonna be at all famous,’ a young Amy Winehouse confesses during her new documentary, Amy. ‘I don’t think I could handle it.’
The words are painful to hear for an audience all too aware of the end of her story — on 23 July 2011, aged just 27, she died of alcohol poisoning at her home in Camden.
Despite her reluctance, Amy had shot to fame in 2006 with the song Rehab. Blending a soulful old jazz sound with a rich, arresting voice, her two albums received widespread praise from critics and fans. But just as they praised her music, for years they also watched her public struggle with drugs, drink, bulimia and heartbreak.
The film, by Senna director Asif Kapadia, features no voiceover or ‘talking head’ interviews. Instead, it is fully immersed in images from the time, beginning with the incredible sound of her voice at 15 years old, before turning to her catastrophic years in the public eye. As her music plays, handwritten lyrics appear on the screen, and the intense sadness of her autobiographical work becomes clear.
Everyone appears complicit in the film’s tragic end: the father who famously told her she was ‘fine’ without rehab, the husband who fuelled her addictions, the manager who allowed her to perform in front of a booing crowd in Belgrade just a month before her death. But perhaps most importantly, the press and the audience, who exposed and consumed every low point of her life.
There has been controversy surrounding the film’s release, most notably from her father Mitch, who labelled its treatment of him a ‘disgrace’ and argued that Kapadia was ‘trying to portray me in the worst possible light’.
In response, Kapadia has insisted that the film is ‘not about them. It’s about her.’
Back to black
If there is one message to take away from the film Amy, it is the danger of the kind of fame which glamorises self-destruction. Amy has joined the ‘27 club’, a list of musicians who died at 27 including Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. However, some argue that the film itself is equally guilty — even after her death, it attempts to pry into her life, to expose the ‘truth’ of her troubled existence. Leave her alone, say critics, and let her finally rest in peace.
But it is important to understand the narrative of such tragedies, others respond, so that we can see the ‘warning signs’ next time. If we do not learn to have more compassion for the humanity of our idols, we will continue to lose them too soon. Amy is uncomfortable to watch, but it is a vital tribute to an incredible talent. We must not forget the beauty of her work, any more than the circumstances of her death.
- Are films like Amy a fitting tribute to their subjects?
- How should society respond to stars who are clearly struggling with their fame?
- In groups, write a song about Amy Winehouse. If you’re feeling brave, try performing it to the rest of the class.
- ‘Genius and tragedy often go hand in hand.’ Do you agree with this statement? Discuss.
Some People Say...
“Every bad situation is a blues song waiting to happen.”Amy Winehouse
What do you think?
Q & A
- Just how good was she?
- Regardless of your opinion of her life, few can deny the power of Amy’s music. Her lyrics were intensely personal, and she had a passion for old jazz music. One of the film’s few moments of relief comes when we see Amy duet with Tony Bennett, one of the world’s most popular jazz singers.
- I’m worried about addiction. What should I do?
- If you are worried about yourself, tell a trusted family member or medical professional. If you’re worried about someone you know, try to offer them support and let them know how you feel as safely as possible. It is a horrible situation, so try to find others who share your concern for the person, and make sure that you have someone to talk to about your own emotions. We have included some useful links under ‘Become an Expert’.
- The north London borough is well-known for its place in music history, from experimental sounds at the Roundhouse theatre in the 60s to blues at the Jazz Cafe and a long list of famous names who performed at the Electric Ballroom. A life-size statue of Amy Winehouse was unveiled in Camden Town last year.
- The single was written after Amy’s manager first tried to convince her to seek help for her addiction. It won three Grammy Awards in 2008. The film’s director Asif Kapadia has recently described the song as a ‘cry for help’.
- Ayrton Senna da Silva was a Brazilian motor racing driver who won three Formula 1 championships and died during a Grand Prix in 1994. Kapadia’s film documents Senna’s own rise to fame and untimely death. It won several awards for Best Documentary, including a BAFTA in 2012.
- 27 club
- Statistically, no more musicians die at 27 than at any other age. But the fame and the circumstances of ‘the Tragic Six’ — Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse — have all led to an increased media focus on the myth.