I did not watch the Oscars last night. And I’m not sorry. As much as I used to love critiquing the fashion on the red carpet I find myself unable to watch something that feels akin to wading through a knee-high pile of bullshit in search of skipping stones underneath. Every person there is either 1) sickening with their fake praise and good-will for their co-workers or 2) intensely uncomfortable having to associate with the former. However, there was one aspect of the show that I was interested in and that was whether or not the Amy Winehouse biopic, “Amy”, would win Best Documentary Feature. It already has been distinguished as the highest grossing British documentary EVER and has won a total of 29 film awards and after viewing it two weeks ago I can say wholeheartedly that I understand why.
Amy opens with some amateur footage, most likely from some sort of hand-held camera, of a couple of best friends hanging out. It’s 1998 and three 14-year-old girls are joking around and singing on camera in London. It’s the first time we see and hear Amy sing onscreen. And it is immediately apparent that at age 14, Amy HAS IT. And this is where it starts. It’s as if Amy sprung into existence a fully formed soul songstress. Compared to the innocent voices of her two best friends, Juliette and Lauren, Amy’s voice is throaty, nuanced, with a mature and sultry vibrato. This footage serves two purposes. The first is to show how absolutely innate her talent and musicality are. And the second is to give the viewer an undiluted image of Amy pre-fame, surrounded by the people who love her. She is happy, carefree, healthy, smiling, chubby-cheeked and laughing. And it is this or similar footage that the film returns to at the end.
The documentary utilizes voice-over interviews with people from her life and the most important, in my opinion, are the words spoken by her two childhood best friends Lauren and Juliette, and her best friend turned manager Nick Shymansky. Footage of Amy flirting with Nicky in a cab is accompanied by Nick saying, “she could make you feel so important, and then all of the sudden very unimportant”. And this is the beginning of the film showing us who Amy was. We learn she was essentially a shy person, but with a charismatic aura that made her feel like a force of nature to those around her. She liked to make people comfortable and then shock them.
Amy never thought she would become famous and never desired it. A jazz singer and musician through and through, creating music was her primary and most healthy coping mechanism. For the first 8 years of Amy’s life, her father cheated on her mother and was mostly absent for her life, until they eventually separated. There is a telling moment when Mitchell, her father, tells us that he thinks Amy got over it very quickly. This is the first and by no means last time Mitchell shows himself to be completely off-base concerning his daughter’s state of mind. Amy’s depression, promiscuity and issues with abandonment all stem from this moment and it is shocking to hear that even retroactively her own father is unable to see the importance his neglect and abandonment played for Amy. Time and time again viewers witness Amy reaching breaking points where even she recognizes the direness of her situation and agrees that she needs help only to see Mitchell prioritize money over Amy’s well-being.
Mitchell’s role as the villain of the piece is shared by one other person, who the viewers meet about a third of the way into the film. Blake Fielder-Civil is introduced when Amy moves out on her own in Camden and starts partying in the areas punk rock clubs. Blake’s influence over Amy is physically apparent. Pictures of her immediately show differences between herself pre- and post-Blake. She’s thinner, wearing much heavier make-up, and sporting her first tattoos. His arm is constantly slung around her and there is something very manipulative way he holds her against him. She almost seems to be trying to hide in him and as her fame grows he revels in it more and more…smiling for the cameras. And it is through Blake that Amy is first introduced to crack cocaine. Footage of her from the time when she started doing hard drugs shows her clearly drugged onstage, slapping her face, wiping her nose and gripping her neck as she struggles to perform. Hours after being admitted to a hospital for a drug overdose, Blake snuck into Amy’s room so they could shoot heroin together. For a woman who says, “I just wanna feel what he’s feeling,” and is terrified of being left behind by Blake, the prospect of doing anything without Blake was unthinkable. And Blake didn’t want her to get better, because then it would be harder for him to use.
The film details the writing processes of both of Amy’s albums, “Frank” and “Back to Black”. But it is the making of “Back to Black”, which was so intrinsically tied to the ups and downs of her relationship with Blake, that feels the most intimate. Amy’s process is both cathartic and healing, as she feels the only time she’s able to deal with her emotions are when she’s writing about them, and destructive, since the songs inevitably pull Blake back to her and drive her towards fortune and fame. One of the saddest parts about this film is the over-all feeling that the forces of those who love Amy, embodied by Lauren, Juliette and Nick, are outweighed by the forces who seek to exploit Amy, embodied by Mitchell, Blake and her promoter/second manager Ray…people who insist that she doesn’t need help and deny any responsibility for her.
There are too many moments that made me breathless in this film that I can’t count them all, let alone recount them here. Too many heart-breaking moments. And I mean really heartbreaking, as the film clearly lays out for the viewer the collapse of a human life. The increased detachment, destruction, panic and despondency in Amy…both onstage and off. I don’t even think I can talk about the footage of Amy and the testimonies about her struggle at the end, because it is all so extraordinarily intimate. While I feel like I know her now I also know that I am just one more person out there wanting a piece of Amy…a part of the hungry feeding frenzy of consumers.
It is a powerful film not just about the story of one person. It addresses the universal issues of addictions, toxic relationships, eating disorders and depression. As I watched Amy struggle with these things I couldn’t help but think of either myself or people I know who have struggled with these issues. Knowing how destructive these things can be in the life of a person who bears the normal amount of pressures and scrutiny I find myself completely overwhelmed with empathy to think of a person struggling under the added pressures of public life, perceived responsibilities to millions of fans, and the cruel mocking and hateful scrutiny of those same people. I think back to reading internet gossip websites about Amy Winehouse in that last year of her life, none of which was flattering or in any way sympathetic, and I feel absolutely terrible.
So I think the most important message to take away from this film, other than what an amazing person Amy Winehouse was and what an unnecessary tragedy her loss of life was, but that beneath every public, and private, figure is a human being with complex emotions and motivations and problems. And if only we could sometimes stop and remember that, we might be able to keep ourselves from doing more irreparable damage to someone who needs nothing more than to be loved…or at least left alone.
Amy Winehouse’s music changed my life, but not as much as it changed hers. And for that I am eternally sorry.