I was in London when Amy Winehouse died. The newspapers trumpeted her death, as well as all of her sordid history. Her struggles with addiction were, though, pretty much all I had known about her, due to my exposure to her only through her 2006 hit “Rehab.”
This documentary rewrites that story. From its opening scene, featuring a 14-year-old Winehouse (sans eyeliner!) singing “Happy Birthday” to her friend, it’s apparent that this film does not want to take the well-trodden path when it comes to biographing Ms. Winehouse. Instead, it shows us the vivacious, soulful, troubled woman she was.
The film eschews the typical documentary voiceover, instead relying on old videos (cell phone footage, recording demos, etc) as well as photographs of her early life with voiced narration from her friends and family. It’s unsettling and heartbreaking to see her so joyful, gleeful and giddy, giggling like the young woman she was, when the media insisted on painting her like a self-destructive, selfish wreck.
However, “self-destructive” is a very accurate term for her demons. Beginning with her father Mitch Winehouse’s abandonment of her family, Amy shows us how men and alcohol were her weaknesses. After the success of her debut album Fame, she falls headlong in love with Blake Fielder-Civil, a club promoter and her ultimate kryptonite.
Her music, which she says is always written from personal experience, becomes even more poignant as we watch the events unfold. “Back to Black,” for example, was written after her first break-up with Fielder, when he left her for his previous girlfriend.
Kept his dick wet
With his same old safe bet
Me and my head high
And my tears dry
Get on without my guy
So far removed from all that we went through
And I tread a troubled track
My odds are stacked
I’ll go back to black
Even more chilling is the realization of the story behind “Rehab.” Her broken heart led to a self-described “black period” of depression and mindless drinking, which was only stopped due to the intervention of her friends and her former manager, Nick Shymansky. His efforts to convince her to go clean, though, ended with her refusal, backed up by her father.
They tried to make me go to rehab but I said, ‘No, no, no.’
Yes, I’ve been black but when I come back you’ll know, know, know
I ain’t got the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine
He’s tried to make me go to rehab but I won’t go, go, go
The unholy stew of her push-pull with Fielder-Civil and the explosive commercial success of her second album Back to Black led her into a dangerous downward spiral. Fielder-Civil, himself struggling with his own addictions, was her partner-in-crime for hard drug use, including crack cocaine and heroin, as well and dangerous levels of drinking. While he admits, after this film’s release, that he had his own drug problems, he describes Winehouse as “[not] a happy, well-adjusted young woman,” (1) insisting that he wasn’t at fault for her struggles. Still, the film doesn’t pull any punches in its depiction of their tempestuous relationship, nor its effects on Winehouse. Watching the two of them together is like watching a ticking time bomb. “It was horrible to see her going from someone so tender and brilliant and warm to being kind of derelict and lost,” says Shymansky (2). In the film, her once sparkling, optimistic eyes seem clouded, hungry, and empty, though its hard to say if the romance, the drugs, the media, or a cocktail of all three led to her breakdown.
However, in its later parts the film feels a bit like the tabloids it maligns, reveling in and building its story around Winehouse’s personal struggles. Just like the media then, her talent as a musician is overshadowed by her life. Still, her life was magnetic for a reason, and even as we watch her hurdle towards what we know is impending doom, we can’t look away. Revelations of untreated bulimia and deep depression play against periods of clarity and inspiration, in which we’re gifted with the lyric sheets and unpublicized demos of potential songs from a third record. She even wins her five Grammy awards while clean, looking happier than she had in years. But it’s crushing when, after accepting her awards, she admits to a close friend that “This was so boring without drugs,” she said.
One such “good” phase finds Winehouse and co. on St. Lucia, hiding from reporters and recovering. At first, she seems like she might be nearing an upswing, potentially escaping some of her anguish. But then she finds that her father has come with a camera crew for his own show in tow, and we can physically see her retreat back into herself, throwing up her walls in response to his callousness.
The documentary makes one long to point fingers, blame her absentee/money-grubbing father, her drug-addicted husband, the relentless and exploitative media. If she had been better supported, better positioned, better equipped to deal with the sudden influx of money and fame, if she hadn’t fallen so deeply in love with someone very troubled himself, if she had been forced to get help at any of the earlier junctions… There are so many times, so clear now in hindsight, that could have stopped her headlong rush into destruction. Still, in the end, Amy Winehouse lived a fast-paced life, like a blaze—fiery and short-lived. And maybe she herself foretold it, in an interview depicted early in the film, as a 20-year-old rising performer. “I don’t think I’m going to be at all famous,” she says. “I don’t think I can handle it. I’d probably go mad.”