Amy: back to black
The new documentary on Amy Winehouse is a desperately sad look at the singer’s life and death
Fame’s a bitch. Again and again in Asif Kapadia’s documentary Amy on the life, music and misfortunes of the late Amy Winehouse, you hear the singer talk about fame and how she didn’t want it. She didn’t want to be in the glare and pop-pop-pop of those cameras. She didn’t want to be the subject of tabloid headlines or talk show jokes. She didn’t want fame. She didn’t to be instantly recognised by large swathes of the world. She wanted to sing jazz songs with that big, glorious, salty, hurt, wallop of a voice she possessed and leave it all on the stage or in the studio.
In the documentary, it’s telling that she looks happiest when she’s in the studio, recording tracks for “Back to Black” with Mark Ronson, putting shapes on her “Frank” debut, messing around with Salaam Remi and especially shoulder to shoulder with her idol Tony Bennett. It’s equally telling that she’s at her unhappiest and most unfortunate on a stage when she played that infamous gig six weeks before her death in 2011 in Belgrade. By then, a Winehouse gig was a horror show, a sad spectacle people went along to because they knew she’d probably fuck up and they wanted to see someone, especially someone who was a caricature of tumbling beehive and tottering high heels and splattered tattoos, fuck up. The magic had well and truly gone and Winehouse fell apart spectacularly that night.
Kapadia’s film is subtle when it comes to asking the question about why exactly she ended up on that stage in Belgrade and who was at fault. We can see clearly why she was in the state she was in, but surely, someone around her could have realised she was in no fit state and cancelled the show? Winehouse was not in any condition to play that show or any other shows, yet agents, promoters and managers, the people who she hired to help her make business decisions and provide professional services, clearly thought otherwise. You get the feeling that there just wasn’t anyone thinking about the person rather than the pay-cheque at that stage of the game.
She had many people vying to be in her corner, as the film shows, but it seems those who really cared deeply for and wanted to support this young, talented, troubled vulnerable woman were eclipsed by others. Her best friends from childhood Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, her former manager Nick Shymansky and her bodyguard Andrew Morris come across as decent, caring folks who were certainly there for her again and again, but with little influence on the decision-making process as the years went by. They weren’t in a position to shout stop.
His father Mitch Winehouse seems to have an agenda of his own – obvious when he turned up to Winehouse’s hideaway in St Lucia with an unexpected camera crew in tow – and her ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil is likewise more concerned with his own reptutation than anything else. Raye Cosbert, the man who went from promoting her gigs to managing her (Winehouse’s call, remember), makes some strange comments about taking care of business and album campaigns, while leaving the personal stuff to family. Surely her manager has a duty of care as someone who was profiting from her work, especially when it’s clear that all involved were dealing with a very damaged person? The label too were probably culpable to some extent, though the film shows the efforts made by Universal boss Lucian Grainge to make a difference.
But all of this was just either not enough or too little too late. All those efforts to clean up and change came to nothing in the end. The young gobby teenager we see at the start of the film became this intriguing, fascinating, wonderful, hugely striking singer who had so much to offer the world, but who could just not deal with the demands and deceits which the crazy fame world foisted upon her and took succour in drink and drugs. Pop stars always say that there’s no training course or manual to deal with fame and they’re right. Add in someone who was clearly unprepared for that world, but who took to it because it seemed to be part of her job description and you’ve a recipe for disaster. The more Winehouse sought to get away from the fame machine and the cameras and the constant attention and baiting, the more it roared and shouted and sought to drag her in.
It’s a shockingly sad film, a reminder that great artists are often troubled beings and that the pop world is not a safe place for them. Too many yes-men and sleevens and people seeking to make cash from convincing them to do things they shouldn’t do. When you look at Winehouse in the final months of her life playing shows she shouldn’t have played, you wonder if other artists will watch Amy and recognise themselves in it. Perhaps not to the same extent, but perhaps there are acts who’ve kept touring and touring beyond the point of no return who should have stopped ages ago or acts who’ve found their troubles amplified as everything else is amped up. Amy Winehouse was an one-off, a wonderful singer with demons she couldn’t control, but she wasn’t the first and won’t be the last whose demons and darkside are made a whole lot worse by those around her.