A losing game

Amy Winehouse documentary explores the troubled life and tragic death of a brilliant pop star

Are we all to blame for her demise?

When the music video for Amy Winehouse’s hit single “You Know I’m No Good” first popped up on my TV screen, I was instantly transfixed. It was 2006—just before Winehouse’s sophomore album Back to Black exploded on the charts—and I had never before laid eyes on this compulsively bizarre figure with the manic beehive and eyes swathed in black. As a predictably morose teenager, I was drawn in by the song’s aching, unadorned lyrics (“Meet you downstairs in the bar and hurt”; “You shrug, and it’s the worst/Who truly stuck the knife in first?”). Mainly, though, I was shocked that such a whopping voice could come out of such a tiny woman.

It was the beginning of what can only be described as an episode of intense fandom. I listened to Back to Black, so many times that the CD’s plastic casing fractured and broke apart. I thumbed through the lyric booklet so frequently that it ripped and became faded. And then, when things started to unravel for Winehouse, I followed the news stories of her drug-fueled antics. Finally, unimpressed and bored by it all, I forgot about my favorite singer until news emerged in July of 2011 that she had died of alcohol poisoning. She was 27 years old.

A new documentary about Winehouse, aptly titled Amy, is a tender chronicle of a life cut short. It is also an exercise in merciless finger-pointing. Among the film’s villains are Winehouse’s father, Mitch Winehouse, who told his daughter that she did not need to go to rehab in spite of her addiction (an accusation he has since refuted); the singer’s deeply unappealing husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, who introduced Winehouse to heroin; the media, which hounded her and transformed her into a grotesque spectacle; and fans—fans like me—who embraced Winehouse as a source of entertainment and turned their backs when things went sour. Most chilling in that regard is a scene that depicts a live concert in Serbia, during which a visibly drug-addled Winehouse appeared onstage. When she refused to perform, the audience, which moments before had been collectively chanting her name, booed at this very sick woman and demanded that she sing.

Amy was directed by Asif Kapadia, who relied on more than 100 interviews and hours of archival footage—including private home movies—to patch together a portrait of a tortured artist. Amy contains many revelations. We learn of her heartbreak in the wake of her parents’ divorce. We become privy to the acuteness of Winehouse’s bulimia, a disease that was largely overshadowed by her addictions. Perhaps most shocking of all is the film’s assertion that many people—like Winehouse’s father and her manager, Raye Cosbert—knew that she was teetering over the edge and still encouraged her to go on tour, to perform, to conduct interviews when she was so high that she could barely string a sentence together. Winehouse was, after all, a very lucrative entity.

But more than anything else, Amy serves as a reminder—a reminder that before Winehouse became lurid tabloid fodder and an international punch line, she was an immense talent. The film opens with a home video of 14-year-old Amy belting out “Happy Birthday” for a friend, transforming the classic tune into a soulful jazz riff. As Amy progresses through the chronology of Winehouse’s life and rise to fame, the narrative is punctuated by snippets of her songs, which are more often than not autobiographical. Her voice is striking, her lyrics a searing, poetic chronicle of her turbulent relationship with Fielder-Civil. During a recording session of the single “Back to Black,” even Amy seems a little spooked by her own song, and no wonder—the lyrics are downright haunting. “We only said goodbye with words. I died a hundred times. You go back to her, and I go back to black.”

Winehouse’s career was needlessly and abruptly cut short, and that sense of unfulfilled potential infuses Amy with a bitter sort of poignancy. Yet Amy also reminds us that there was more to Winehouse than a powerful voice. She was a living, breathing person, and the film strives to restore the humanity that was leeched out of Winehouse once she became known around the world as a flailing drug addict. She comes across as wickedly funny in interviews and in personal interactions (one can’t write a tongue-in-cheek song about rehab and not have a sense of humor). She was scarred by a broken childhood. She loved her husband too much for her own good.

I was once enthralled by Amy Winehouse’s raw talent, but I rarely thought about her after she died. For me, Amy was a strange and sad viewing experience. Watching more than two hours of paparazzi footage, home movies, and interviews with Winehouse’s doctors makes viewers complicit in the sort of prying that seems to have accelerated Winehouse’s downfall, and this is unsettling. But Winehouse was more than a headline, and the world should know it. She was undone by herself and by all of us. She deserves our understanding.

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