When we think of Winehouse, what do we remember? Director Asif Kapadia, the man behind Senna, wants us to remember Amy. Amy the girl, Amy the young woman. A person, not a public figure. The question becomes not ‘what’ but who was she? The answer is that Amy was human. A complex individual driven to extremes by the populist assault of paparazzi and tabloid. She found sanctuary in hard drugs and harder relationships. Was she just a jazz voice suspended on stilettos beneath a beehive, or a wasted genius? She was a prodigy, but most of all, she was real. Kapadia’s primary achievement is to humanise a character from the caricature that we, as a collective society, created.
Kapadia himself places the blame on each and every one of us. A dangerous theme since discursive, didactic films about mainstream figures often find a peeved and perturbed public. He includes snippets of youtube clips from her disastrous Serbian set, during which she refused to sing and tottered, blind drunk, across stage. The festival slot was meant as her great return but instead was the beginning of the end as she went from an improved state to her lowest ebb. We hear the crowd as they veer from maniacal cheers to the jeers and boos of a micro-society who value the cost of their ticket before the human decency of concern. The worrying thing is, we would all feel the same and probably have added our cries to the cacophony of scorn.
Her death becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as she is driven deep within herself by a constant barrage of abuse, both public and private. The public is driven by a classic portrait of the media. They sway from a universally bland puddle of purring praise to a wolf pack of carnivores on a vegetarian diet. Gone cold turkey, they feast on the petite brunette. The piranhas are transatlantic swimmers. When Back to Black achieves success in America, the likes of Jay Leno welcome Amy’s talent with open arms. Once her demise reaches the tabloids, she turns into an open joke. Even the once docile British media stirs into a feeding frenzy. Obviously, Frankie Boyle finds fun in personal tragedy, because, as an untalented observational comedian, that is his only route to humour alongside his scoootish accent. But when we see the likes of Graham Norton, adding his jaws to gnaw at Winehouse’s side, we realise this campaign of hate is stretching into overdrive. A campaign framed by the flashing bulbs of the photographers who stalk her every move. From early success right the way to her corpse being carried from her London home, her tragedy dances to the disco lights of paparazzi. It is disgusting to behold. Kapadia’s film comes with a warning for epileptics and he realises the nature of the hounding media beast that besets Amy’s every move. We feel the public pain. But, we, the public drive this frenzy from our own wilful desire to hear, read and know more about the girl we created and whose story we now own. The paparazzi are the symptom of the public’s shame.
She needs private comfort. A safe refuge to return and remove herself from this storm. No. She finds no sanctuary, merely a series of profiteering interlopers who masquerade as family. Kapadia’s
depiction of Blake has been seen as another humanising portrait and criticised as such. It is better to see Blake and Mitch, Amy’s father, as Lucifer and Mephistopheles in the story of this fallen angel. Though Amy is certainly no angel in the film, Kapadia creates a realistic warts and all woman from the collage of home video clips and sounds from thirteen years of life, the two main men are devils incarnate. Mitch has publicly disowned the films portrayal of his own contribution to the narrative. The truth hurts. The final shame of a failed father is St Lucia. Invited to come to his improving daughter, finding sun, sea and sobriety on the Caribbean islet, Mitch is accompanied by an entourage of the very people Amy has escaped. The cameras pursue Mitch’s every topless move; the sound engineers capture every breath and raised eyebrow of family life. It is an act of selfish, pig-headed capitalism from a man whose sole duty was to the soul of his daughter, not the numbers of his bank account. Shameless, it is exposed for what it is: a disgrace. She needed a father, she got a tabloid sensationalist with an eye for engineering money making opportunism from private pain. Then there comes the real villain. Blake, the husband, without getting on a moralistic Mail high horse is the most blameworthy. Dubiously credited with introducing our leading lady to hard drugs, he represents a heroin addled vulture, preying on the devilish delights of his wife. The best thing is that he is able to tell it in his own words. A creepy voice that drenches the audience in a tobacco stained smog of smug. His Camden drool, the voice of the devil.
Only he gives the fuel to inspire the voice of the angel Amy, her lyrics and songs written from her heart-Blake (sorry, can never refuse a good bit of tabloidism), while destroying the devil Amy with his monomania. The story of Winehouse is familiar to us all. Kapadia successfully finds ways to chip away at the stereotype and get somewhere close to an Amy we can believe was once there. We see beyond the alcoholism and failed rehab. For, after all, it was the drink, not the drugs that killed her in the end. We see the passionate life that shone out of that most rare media persona, a personality which was humorous and honest. Meanwhile, the film is a paradox. It distils a version of Amy while offering a mirror to the viewers. An outward projection that weaves within to offer a message to every member of our corrupt society. But most importantly it restores Amy to Winehouse. Amy Winehouse.