Who killed Amy Winehouse?


Amy (M). Director: Asif Kapadia. Starring: Amy Winehouse. 108 minutes

'Celebrities, it sometimes seems, are public property,' I wrote back in July 2011, days after the alcohol-related death of pop singer Amy Winehouse at the age of 27. 'Their work enters the public consciousness, and moves or brings joy to many. We feel that the art that has moved us, in some way belongs to us. And because the art is conflated with the artist, the artist belongs to us too.'

On the occasion of such a celebrity's death, this sense of ownership, I noted, tended to give rise to contrasting but related phenomena: of disproportionate levels of grief on the one hand; and unspoken permission to make poor-taste jokes, at the expense of a dead human being, on the other. Both these phenomena were evident in public conversation in the wake of Winehouse's death.

'But the Winehouse we feel we own, and therefore feel justified in either grieving or disparaging, is not Winehouse,' I wrote. 'Celebrity sees humanity fragmented by fickle relevancy and diffused by media. The public persona is a product of our own perceptions, and is both illusory and transitory.' This 'obvious truth … ought to be regularly revisited' — celebrities are people too, and deserve dignity.

Certainly these thoughts bear revisiting upon the release of a new documentary about the singer's life. In 2011, the same year as Winehouse's death, British filmmaker Kapadia released a gripping, heartbreaking documentary, Senna, about the career and tragic death of Brazillian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna. His film about Winehouse, Amy, is equally as gripping and still more heartbreaking.

Just as Senna was composed from archival television footage, Amy's visuals are constructed almost entirely from archival and home video footage and still photographs. There are few talking heads and no formal narration; instead, Kapadia weaves the voices of Amy's friends and colleagues, and recordings of Amy's own voice, into a nearly stream-of-consciousness retelling of her story.

The approach has its drawbacks. At times, clarity is sacrificed to momentum. But generally it is very engaging, even spine-tinglingly effective. One sequence portrays the events of a doomed relationship, using photographs of Amy and a young man cavorting in a park. Her friends reflect in voiceover on the intensity of the relationship, and on its drawbacks; notably, that the man had another girlfriend.

Once we've heard of this relationship's ugly end, Kapadia segues to footage of Winehouse in the studio recording her hit song 'Back to Black'. The instrumental tracks are playing through her headphones, so we hear only her immense soul-singer's voice, stripped bare and uttering a lyric that speaks directly to the relationship that has just fallen apart, and her grief: 'You go back to her, and I go back to black'.

Kapadia mines interviews from early in Winehouse's career, where she reflects not only on the importance of writing personal songs, but on the futility of performing songs that are not. A winningly artless young Winehouse responds contemptuously to a journalist's suggestion that she uses music to 'clean out her emotional closet'. But there is little doubt music was catharsis for Winehouse.

The film reveals plenty of early signs of the substance abuse that would later see her become a target of gleeful media scorn, and which would ultimately cause her death. But there is plenty of evidence, too, that intrusive media attention fuelled her self-destructive tendencies. During one haunting interview from the dawn of her career she reflects that if she was famous, she would go mad.

These prescient words are punctuated later in the film by the now world-renowned (and maligned) Winehouse's insistence that she is not famous; that fame itself is a fiction. The words reveal an aching, fundamental awareness of the gap between the persona painted by a spiteful media and fickle public, and the preternaturally talented working-class girl from London who just wanted to sing.

There are other villains. At one point, Winehouse, her body wasted by bulimia, escapes with her entourage to a seaside getaway, only to have her father show up with a camera crew. Years earlier, he had discouraged her from seeking help for her addictions (something she famously sang of in her song 'Rehab'). In retrospect these seem like most egregious instances of exploitation and neglect.

Kapadia pays close attention, too, to Winehouse's relationship with former husband, Blake Fielder-Civil. They shared a fraught and mutually destructive relationship (he was the subject of 'Back to Black'), which the film explores via accounts from friends and interviews with experts in the psychology of addiction. Suffice it to say the portrayal of Fielder-Civil in this is not positive.

In truth Amy plays close to the line of the kind of voyeurism and sensationalism of the paparazzi that so hounded Winehouse in life. But it is saved by its obvious affection for her, and its reminders of just how talented she really was. Her voice was an ethereal instrument, yet she could still be reduced to nervous jitters when meeting her idol, jazz singer Tony Bennett. As such Amy is as much tribute as tragedy.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Senna, Amy Winehouse, documentary, Back To Black, Rehab, Asif Kapadia



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Existing comments

Being of the Janis Joplin era I didn't know very much about Amy Winehouse. In fact, I've just visited YouTube to listen to her most famous song "Back to Black" (82 million views). And her voice is superlative. The self-destructive tortured talent is so prevalent in the entertainment industry and a public hungry for intrusion into lives they think they own doesn't augur well for stability and steadiness. Amy wasn't about those two qualities. Just as my generation won't easily forget Janis Joplin, Amy will be remembered and appreciated - just for being Amy.
Pam | 01 July 2015

Was it the same bloke who killed Cock Robin?
john frawley | 02 July 2015

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