When I heard that there was going to be a film made about Amy Winehouse’s life, first of all – I was excited. I grew up listening to Aerosmith and Def Leppard so I was more into rock and metal music than any other genre but I always thought there was something about Winehouse’s music that was universal.
It was so genuine, raw and expressive that it transcended music tastes. Even though she was a jazz artist – a genre which isn’t very commercially successful – her music was globally popular because, like her or not, you had to recognise her sensational, once-in-a-generation talent. To this day, Back to Black is one of my favourite albums and I adored Winehouse for everything from her ballsy attitude to her punk-rock-Barbie style.
I assumed that the usual biopic set up would be used with an actress playing Winehouse interspersed with some photographs/clips of the real Amy Winehouse. But I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the film would be compiled of home videos taken throughout Winehouse’s life to make it more like a documentary than a Hollywood movie. I imagined this approach would be a refreshing, honest take on Winehouse’s story that I thought she would have approve of (more so than an actor’s portrayal) because the idea is more authentic, more real than the typical biopic.
There has been a lot of controversy surrounding this film as Mitch Winehouse, Amy’s father, has publicly condemned the motion picture. In several interviews before and after the release of Amy, Mr Winehouse expressed that he doesn’t believe the film is true to the real Amy, her life or her family. Mr Winehouse believes that the filmmakers deliberately portrayed him as a bad father who didn’t help, protect or try to save Amy – an accusation which he denies.
Whether Mr Winehouse was the perfect father, whether he took full ownership of every opportunity to help his daughter, I’m not sure. When it comes to addicts, especially after their usually untimely deaths, everyone always wants someone to blame. Whether that be family, friends or a partner, people always want someone to point the finger at and say “You didn’t do enough!” And maybe Winehouse could have been saved with the right help and support. But addiction is a disease, a life-long battle, that can’t be eradicated with any kind of quick fixes. And I believe if someone is hellbent on self-destructing and refuses to accept help, there is little that can be done for them.
As for Mr Winehouse’s comments, I think he was right. Watching the film, I definitely got the impression that his parts were edited in a way as to portray him as a reckless, absent father – which he admits he was in Amy’s early life as he met another woman and left the family home. But as Winehouse grew up, their relationship rekindled and through watching documentaries and footage of the pair, it was evident that they adored each other and while they might have had a strained relationship, it was still a strong one.
One of the aspects of the film that I think fails is the interviews. As we see footage and photographs of Winehouse, we hear stories from her family, friends, producers, collaborates, security team etc. accompanied by a mention of their name and relationship to Winehouse on the screen. But we don’t see them.
The fact that we don’t get to see videos of the contributors to the film as they talk makes it difficult to really appreciate the tone in which they’re speaking. At parts, it sounds like some of the contributors were crying when talking about Winehouse but it’s still hard to tell. This approach is what led me to believe that the filmmakers were trying to manipulate the audience’s opinion of Mr Winehouse. Even though he was Winehouse’s father, his voice is only heard four times – all of which are very brief and taken out of context. At times, you can almost hear where his voice was edited.
In one instance – before Winehouse started taking hard drugs but was abusing alcohol – we hear Mr Winehouse say that his daughter didn’t need to go to rehab, then his voice is abruptly cut off. Mr Winehouse explained in an interview on Loose Women that this part was deliberately medalled with to make him look bad and he explained that what he actually said was that he didn’t think his daughter needed to go to rehab at that time and that he didn’t believe she was in a place where she would have agreed to treatment.
Not being able to see who was talking also brought about a bit of a disconnect in what was otherwise a very accessible and insightful film.
Parts of this movie are incredible. Seeing Winehouse singing as a child with all the raw talent and charisma she had as an adult; watching her gradually change from an intimate jazz singer to a performer with real confidence and stage presence; being able to peer in to see glimpses of some of Winehouse’s most intimate and, sometimes, her most vulnerable moments; and being lucky enough to have the opportunity to see parts of her that were only reserved for the ones she loved was truly breath-taking.
As well as being uplifting, emotional and heart-warming, however, this film is also harrowing. Towards the end, the audience watches on in horror as Winehouse falls into the gripping depths of crack cocaine and heroin addiction; watching as her talent and ability to perform slowly slips away; and she crumbles on stage on several occasions like a frightened little girl.
In many ways, Winehouse’s downward spiral was like watching an adult revert back into a child again. The way she toddled off after Blake’s hand, the way she nestled into members of her band when on stage so she could avoid having to go over to the microphone and the way she sat on her father’s lap and pleaded with him when everyone urged her to accept rehabilitation treatment was like watching a little girl, not a grown woman.
Amy is also upsetting because it focuses so much on the latter part of Winehouse’s life and her worst times. We see nothing but a picture of Reg Traviss, Winehouse’s boyfriend when she died, as he was completely cut from the film. The film focuses on the icon, on the downfall, on the spectacle of how the media portrayed Winehouse, rather than the real person behind all that eyeliner and beehive hair.
The film also offers an insight into the ugliness of our society when it comes to attitudes surrounding addiction. I, too, used to think like most people that addicts deserved whatever came their way because they chose to take drugs. But as I got older, I started to have more empathy. It’s typical that most addicts are addicts because they are self-medicating some kind of trauma, whether that be mental health problems or harrowing experiences or circumstances in their life. This too applied to Winehouse who had depression and bulimia even as a child, even before she picked up a pen and wrote a song.
As we are shown clips from pop culture over the years of comedians like Frankie Boyle and Graham Norton poking fun at the star, it doesn’t seem so funny. Since when were mental illness and eating disorders something to laugh about? We are shown how the media cruelly taunted Winehouse, hounded her like a circus freak on display simply for their entertainment and stalked her with flashing cameras. Similar to Princess Diana’s death, I think the media had a part to play in Winehouse’s demise too. From a woman who said even before she became commercially popular that fame scared her and that if she ever became famous she would go mad, it’s hardly surprising that she struggled to cope with the vast amounts of media attention that followed her.
Walking out of the cinema after Amy was over, I felt sad. I started to think about addiction and wondered if Winehouse could have been saved or if she was destined to crash and burn. It’s clear that we still don’t truly understand the mechanics of addiction and while we continue to treat addicts like criminals, we won’t ever be able to empathise with or help them. Treating addiction like an illness instead of a crime needs to be the approach society takes.
While the film has some major, misleading flaws, I would recommend that everyone, fan of Winehouse or not, should go and see this film. Watch the footage and ignore the rest if you will, but go and observe how she was treated and reflect on how you think about addiction. It’s likely that we are all touched by addiction in some way, whether it be that you have a relative who is an alcoholic or a friend who takes drugs, it affects most people in one way or another and we should all make more of an effort to understand it.
Amy showcases the raw, authentic, unique and powerful talent of Amy Winehouse. She was an artist like no other who was intelligent, funny, beautiful, ballsy, confident and immensely talented; who loved hard; who never allowed herself to be moulded or changed to suit someone else’s standards; who always remained true to herself; who scoffed at the pop music industry and got everyone back to appreciating real music with live instruments and untouched, raw, authentic vocals. It will always be sad that Winehouse died so young and in such harrowing circumstances. But at least we can remember her through her incredible music and be glad that she was here, even though it was only for a little while.
Amy is in cinemas now.
Featured image courtesy of Flickr.