Should the song that made her famous even exist?
It happened just like the hook says it did. A handful of loved ones approached Amy Winehouse, before fame would make such intervention nearly impossible, about going to rehab. She was drinking all the time. She had struggled with depression and bulimia. In her own words, she was “not, like, some messed-up person,” and she was, as her friends tell it, receptive to the idea of treatment. But when she asked her dad what he thought, he told her that she didn’t have to go. So she didn’t.
Nick Shymansky, Amy’s first manager, describes this failure as “the moment we lost a very key opportunity.” Amy could have had professional help “before the world wanted a piece of her.”
Soon the world wanted every piece of her. “Rehab,” her musical distillation of this pivotal call, was a smash. It starts with the chorus, like “She Loves You” and “Mrs. Robinson,” one of those rare, perfectly crafted pop songs that doesn’t need to clear its throat before getting to the point.
Less than five years after “Rehab” was released, Amy died of alcohol poisoning. So what is this song now? An inescapably catchy autopsy?
We know one Amy Winehouse. We can picture her. That bird body beneath the beehive hair, the pinup cartoons and cursive words tattooed up her arms and across her chest, the thick sweep of black eyeliner that may as well have been tattooed on her face.
And of course she was a junkie and a trainwreck and a joke, and of course she self-destructed at the age of 27, oooooh, the 27 Club, and of course we can deal with this neatly, and fast: she was one of those doomed souls whose obituary was written in advance.
We think we know everything — don’t we always — but how much of her existence did we witness? Back to Black was released on October 27, 2006. Amy died on July 23, 2011. Even for a life as short as Amy’s, that is so little to go on. An epilogue, practically.
Amy, a documentary on the singer-songwriter that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, takes us back to the start. Thankfully, it gives us her origin story without falling into the tired model of showing us a picture of her mom in the hospital while someone intones, “Amy was born on…” The interviews play over home movies or other video clips, not talking-head-style. We are spared the conventional structure. What we get in its place is something looser and not quite chronological, with Amy’s backstory folded in when thematically relevant.
The Amy with whom we spend a great deal of our time in Amy does not look, much, like our Amy. She looks like her own Amy. She has janky teeth and a common accent and a singing voice that, while it predates the trend of addressing the unaddressable with “I can’t even,” inspires that exact reaction. You just can’t even. Her sound is all contradictions: sultry and delicate, confident and vulnerable, knowing and naked.
Director Asif Kapadia has described his documentary as “something in the middle of authorized and unauthorized.” It was commissioned by Universal, Amy’s label. Some of Amy’s friends were skeptical about being interviewed, concerned that not enough time had passed since Amy’s death. Amy’s father, Mitch Winehouse, has publicly disassociated himself from the project, which he calls a “disgrace.”
But Kapadia stands by his work, saying he conducted interviews with over 100 people and insisting, essentially, that people who don’t like the documentary probably don’t like it because it’s true. The individuals in Amy’s inner circle, he told Vulture, “made decisions I feel were not necessarily best for Amy,” and while they may be displeased with the outcome of the film, “this is the reality of what was going on.”
The key figure behind the film, aside from Kapadia, is Shymansky, who managed Amy from the time she was 16 years old (he was only three years her senior) until Back to Black. What Shymansky brought to the table: 12 hours of private footage shot on handheld digital cameras at the beginning of Amy’s career.
The candid shots reveal an Amy who is bright and witty and a bit of a flirt. She takes music seriously, but not herself. There is this radiance in her that you see in so many of those clips of stars before they were stars. It’s through this film we see teenage Amy cracking jokes in the backseat of a cab, singing “Happy Birthday” to her best friend, pulling her hair off her face with a barette to sing “Love is Blind” for a few record execs, accompanying herself with a few spare chords on an acoustic guitar.
Shymansky was initially reluctant to participate or even meet Kapadia, but he was swayed by the sight of Kapadia’s editing suite: the walls were plastered with his reporting and a comprehensive timeline of Amy’s life. Shymansky told the New York Times that “It was like going into a murder detective’s office.”
It’s a fitting description, because the movie has a way of exploring about Amy’s life like the filmmakers are trying to solve a crime: who is responsible for what happened here? The answer at which Kapadia arrives is another question: who isn’t?
There’s Amy’s mother, who admits that she “found it difficult to stand up” to her own daughter. “I wasn’t strong enough to say to her: stop.” Amy’s dad was having an affair until Amy was nine years old. He walked out of his marriage and only involved himself in his daughter’s life again, it appears, after she became famous and wealthy. At one point, when Amy flees to Saint Lucia to stay clean and write music, Mitch brings along a camera crew to shoot a TV documentary, My Daughter Amy. He says that he didn’t think his behavior or subsequent separation from Amy’s mother had all that big an impact on Amy; Amy traces her almost pathological promiscuity to the minute he walked out.
Amy’s last tour, which was supposed to revive her career, was a horror show. In an especially damning sequence, Amy’s promoter-turned-manager, Raye Cosbert, says Amy gave him the green light to send her on more tour dates. But her friends tell a different story: they say Amy was taken to the airport while she was asleep, oblivious that she was being transported to fulfill a professional commitment she didn’t even know she’d made.
Then there’s Blake Fielder-Civil, reportedly the person who introduced Amy to crack cocaine. (By his own admission, they did the drug together more than once.) He and Amy started seeing each other while still in relationships with other people; Fielder-Civil broke it off with Amy to stay with his girlfriend, a trauma that inspired a number of the songs on Back to Black. But they ultimately reunited, marrying in 2007 and divorcing in 2009. Amy isn’t too hard on Fielder-Civil, actually, though his role in Amy’s emotional havoc is undeniable. Kapadia lets Fielder-Civil share that he cut himself at just nine years old, that he had demons of his own.
The paparazzi is portrayed as particularly vicious, just about foaming at the mouth to get photos of Amy until her sudden end. It is through a paparazzi lens that we see Amy’s dead body, covered in a sheet, carried out of her house.
Amy is so out of step with the other pop stars of her generation — take your pick: Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Adele — for whom control is the order of the day. Amy was an unwieldy, chaotic person. Her personality and her charisma and her what-the-hell attitude could not be contained: by her management, by the label, by friends or family. Among her contemporaries, there is no analogous star. Charli XCX has some of the flair but her wildness still feels like an affectation. Rihanna, who markets herself as a bad girl, can only dream of giving as few fucks as Amy Winehouse.
Amy saw herself as a jazz singer, and maybe she should have been: playing the club circuit, intimate spaces, smaller crowds. At one point, she tells an interviewer that all she wants is to be left alone to write music. She seems to be almost apologizing for this: she knows we want more of her, but she’s emptied the tank and is pleading with us to give her the time she needs to refill it.
She’s not the kind of artist where you think what wrecked her was the same thing that made her, the type of musician who claims they can only do their best work when they’re high. With Amy, it seems to be the opposite. In her early days, she shines. When she does crack for the first time, a light goes out. At the 2008 Grammys, after a victorious sweep — she won five awards, including three of the Big Four: Best New Artist, Song of the Year and Record of the Year — she turned to one her of childhood friends and said, “This is so boring without drugs.”
Amy reminds us that Winehouse was a gifted lyricist who was willing to crack her life open like an egg and let every private, delicate thing come oozing out into her songs. When you’re writing lyrics, she says, “You have to remember what the weather was like, you have to remember what his neck smelled like, you have to remember all of it.” Her playful, even goofy sense of humor is highlighted here, too, in her own description of her thinking behind heartbreaking songs: “Even if they’re sad, I try to put a little punchline in it.”
As she performs, her lyrics appear in text on the screen, so even when her vocal stylings make her hard to understand, her artful, clever phrasing comes through. After everyone else gets to weigh in on a stage of Amy’s life, we hear Amy’s take, through her music. She’s given this agency to narrate her own story.
About an early boyfriend, older than Amy but far too sensitive and soft for her taste: “Don’t you know you’re supposed to be the man / Not pale in comparison to who you think I am.” After Fielder-Civil left Amy to stay with his girlfriend: “All I can ever be to you / is the darkness that we knew / and this regret I got accustomed to.” On her devotion to Fielder-Civil, in spite of the ruin that love leaves in its wake: “He still stands in spite of what his scars say / And I’ll battle ’til this bitter finale / Just me, my dignity, and this guitar case.” Maybe the worst, but cleverest, excuse for infidelity of all time: “I didn’t let him hold my hand / But he looked like you; I guess he looked like you / No he wasn’t you / But you can still trust me, this ain’t infidelity / It’s not cheating; you were on my mind.”
There is no getting around the truth haunting the movie from the beginning, adding this loaded significance even to the clichés. Amy says, “Life is short,” and you shiver.
The stardom Amy was launched to, courtesy of “Rehab,” does not appear to be something she ever wanted with any ferocity. She doesn’t appear to enjoy it when she has it. We hear her say in an interview while promoting Frank that she does not expect to be a huge star.
“My music is not on that scale,” she said. “I don’t think I’m going to be at all famous. I don’t think I could handle it. I think I’d go mad. I know I’d go mad.”