“Life teaches you how to live, if you live long enough.” Tony Bennett in AMY
Tonight, I watched the Amy Winehouse documentary, AMY about the life and death of jazz and neo-soul singer Amy Winehouse, directed by Asif Kapadia. The two-hour-doc is pieced together using sometimes shaky and ultra-closeup archival footage shot by her ex-manager and friend, Nick Shymanksy and ex-husband Blake Fielder. There was also a lot of paparazzi footage, which feels ironic and somewhat tragic given how the media tormented her. The story chronicles relevant dates. Concert dates, party dates, holidays, drug binges, award shows. There are never-before-heard songs and Amy narrates the journey from fourteen-year-old live wire raised by a single Jewish mother in London, to a six-time Grammy-winning vocal virtuoso.
Amy Winehouse was 27 when she died, on July 23rd. My birthday. For some reason, that always feels eerie–when you hear that someone died on the day you were born. You feel inextricably linked. Well, I already loved her music, her lyrics mostly and her voice: honest, gravelly, undulating into your flesh only to wrench your soul.
Amy struggled for years with bulimia and later alcohol and drug addiction. It feels too easy to blame her family, who she told about her eating disorders early on, and did nothing. It’s striking, however, how much those around her tried to fight and save this woman they called a friend, and loved so much.
The evening Amy Winehouse won five Grammy’s, including one win announced by her idol Tony Bennett (who she later recorded Grammy-winning “Body and Soul” with for Duets II), she told her friend Juliette Ashby something that shouldn’t have shocked me, but did. She said, “Julie, this is so boring without drugs.”
Going into watching this film, I was prepared to hate her allegedly money-grabbing, fame-whoring father, Mitch Winehouse; I was prepared to hate her ex-husband Blake Fielder for turning her onto crack and heroine–even injecting her in a hospital bed between doctor’s visits; I was prepared to cry and twinge in frustration and disgust at the demise of a star.
Instead, I was reminded of paparazzi field-days resulting in emblazoned headlines in major tabloids like The Sun. I was reassured that an addict can’t stop unless they’re ready, and even if they’re ready, they can be dragged down by their addict boyfriends. And that sometimes it takes three times and sometimes, even that doesn’t work. I felt an unexpected thickness to my skin. I didn’t cry. I felt consistently sad, but also in awe of Amy’s talent, her ferocious kindness and generosity, her open heart, her knowledge of jazz, her true friendships with artists like Mos Def and Questlove and her fallibility. At 27 she said goodbye to the world, but also goodbye to the pain and misery of living a life she wasn’t holding the reins to anymore. Spiraled out of control, she died the way she lived.
Amy Winehouse became a thing. A thing to listen to. A thing for record company CEOs to sell. A thing for managers to carry, asleep, into a car headed to an airport, only to wake on a plane to Serbia for a concert. She became a thing to her husband: a gravy train. She became a thing to gawk at, as evidenced by the bronze and wax statues of her that have been erected. And she became a thing to herself. Unable to vocalize her needs, Amy became a dispensary of alcohol and drugs. Sometimes, even when she did speak up, such as the famed failed concert in Belgrade, which she begged to get out of, nobody listened. She rarely advocated for herself and few others did either. With an absentee father growing up, she spent a decade trying to make peace with men. Her tattoo “Daddy’s Girl” rang true, especially when she tried to pacify her father, who brought reality show cameras to St. Lucia during an extended detox vacation and then reprimanded her for not wanting to pose for a fan photo.
Amy Winehouse had an indelible effect on musicians like Adele, Lady Gaga, Florence Welch, Jessie J and Ellie Goulding. Her self-referential “Back to Black” was the final CD purchased before the last Tower Records in Israel closed. There is a mural of her in Barcelona, Spain. Still, amid her last words, she told her bodyguard and friend Andrew Morris that she would give away her gift of voice to be able to walk down the street and be left alone.
AMY has become the highest grossing British documentary film of all time, as it opened with a box office of £3 million on its first weekend.
Are you a fan of Amy Winehouse? What legacy did she leave in your eyes? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Thanks for reading.