Amy Winehouse died on July 23, 2011, at age 27. She died 17 years after another famous self-destructive lead singer, Kurt Cobain, killed himself, causing some to dub this coincidence “the 27 Club.”
In a new documentary, “Amy” that premiered in England on July 3rd and in the United States on July 10th, directed by Asif Kapadia and produced by James Gay-Rees and Universal Music, we learn “the story behind the music” from home video footage and interviews with those who knew Amy best—including Amy, herself. It is a compelling and oh-so-sad look at one of–if not THE—greatest songwriter of her generation. The film debuted at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.
The singer’s own song lyrics, projected onscreen, and her own interview statements, provide us with a murky picture of what led to her premature death. She described herself as a happy child until the age of 9, when her parents separated (her father, Mitch, moved in with his girlfriend). Amy continued to live with her mother, Janis, and to visit her father and his girlfriend on weekends, but Janis, by her own admission, was not a disciplinarian. (“I wasn’t strong enough to say to her: Stop!”) Amy’s father, Mitch, whom she idolized, was not around to say “no” and her behavior from age 9 on seems to be a classic case of “acting out.” Anything she thought would displease or shock her parents or other adults, she did—whether it was tattoos, piercings, her hair, her style of dress, her make-up, her promiscuity, or her eventual fatal infatuation with drugs and alcohol.
Amy came by her love for jazz legitimately, as many of Winehouse’s maternal uncles were professional jazz musicians and she was encouraged to listen to the greats. Amy’s paternal grandmother, Cynthia, was a singer, and Amy calls her “the strongest woman I ever knew.” Her Nan’s death in 2006, when Amy was 23, hit Amy hard, at a time when other problems were rapidly building in her complicated life.
In one interview by Garry Mulholland of “The Observor” Amy, when asked about fame, replies, “I don’t think I could handle it. I think I’d go mad.” Indeed, there were suggestions that she may have been manic depressive and she suffered from bulimia. She was prescribed the anti-depressant Seroxat after her father left home, when quite young.
From the time Mitch left, Amy was a “Wild Child” and in various sorts of trouble. Although it is not mentioned in the documentary, there were several charges of assault leveled against her. Even Amy admitted to sometimes hitting husband Blake Fielder-Civil, and one of her songs suggests that “You should be stronger than the woman.”
The entrance of Blake Fielder-Civil into her life seems to have been one of the worst pairings of two troubled people in history. It echoes the Sid Vicious (the Sex Pistols) murder of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. The murder, in this case, was much more insidious, as Fielder-Civil introduced Amy to the worst of the drugs she experimented with and played fast-and-loose with her heart, breaking up with her to return to a former girlfriend ( inspiring “Back to Black”) and deciding, while in prison on drug and assault charges, to divorce her. Amy was betrayed by almost ever significant male figure in her life in one way or another.
After Fielder-Civil left her, briefly, to return to his previous girlfriend, Amy wrote, “Now my destructive side has grown a mile wide.” Fielder-Civil reveals to the camera that, at the age of 9, [the same age as Amy when her father deserted her], he had attempted suicide. Amy is quoted repeatedly saying, “I write songs because I’m fucked up in the head.”
Amy’s father Mitch seems a bit too eager to profit from his daughter’s popularity and to springboard his own entrepreneurial efforts, sponging off her fame and fortune. The film makes a point of confirming that her father DID say she didn’t need to go to rehab, and the narrator obviously feels it was one of Amy’s last chances to turn her life around.
Amy’s final “Duets” partner, Tony Bennett, is interviewed and says that Amy sensed that she was going to die young; he also gave her huge props as a true Jazz singer. They are shown in the recording studio working together. It is obvious that Amy is nervous at performing with one of her idols. Her record of 5 2008 Grammy Awards for “Back to Black” and many other British music awards cements her influence as one of the most important songwriters of her generation. (Amy had to perform via video; she was not allowed to leave the country and enter the U.S. because of drug use charges.)
A change of managers also appears to have been a change for the worse. Her original manager, Nick Shymensky, became a close friend, starting with her when he was only 19 and she was 16. Amy left him to go with Metropolis Music promoter Raye Cosbert, who put her on the road when she was ill and overbooked her for performances when Amy would, sometimes intentionally, sabotage her performance, as when she was forced to travel to Serbia to sing. It is related in the documentary that Amy was physically carried to a limo, unconscious from a night of hard partying, and put on a private plane to take her to the concert, where she subsequently refused to sing when called to the stage. [My daughter saw her during a Lollapalooza performance during this period and said she was “a mess.”] On the bright side, she had a great working relationship with record producer Salaam Remi, with whom she shared the Grammy for “Back to Black.”
When asked about the onerous nature of fame, [for which she was ill-prepared], Amy said, “If I really thought I was famous, I’d go and top myself, because it’s scary. It’s very scary.” She also says, at one point near the end of the film that she would happily trade her singing talent for the anonymity of being able to walk down the street without being hassled by fans.
After Amy’s Grandmother Cynthia (Nan) died on May 5, 2006, when Amy was 22, things seemed to spiral downward for the singer. She had a seizure on August 24, 2007 in Camden and medical personnel said, “Her body can’t keep up with this. If she has another seizure, she’ll die.” Amy was told to swear off drugs, which she attempted to do and, apparently, had done at the time of her death. Her lung capacity was at only 70% (Mitch told the press she had signs of early emphysema) and her heartbeat was irregular.
However, when Amy was “off” drugs, she substituted abuse of alcohol, drinking heavily. In fact, it was alcohol poisoning that ultimately killed her, combined with the effects of years of drug abuse and bulimia. The film states that the level of alcohol in her system at the time of her death was “45 times the drunk driving limits,” although another source listed it as 416 mg. per 100 ml (0.416%), which is 5 times the legal drunk driving limit.
Her bodyguard at the time said, “This is someone who wants to disappear.” Amy began to unravel in public. She couldn’t escape her fame. As her bodyguard put it, “She needed someone to say no. She just needed support.”
“I cheated myself, like I knew I would. I told you—I’m trouble—you know that I’m no good.” With two of her romantic interests (Alex Claire and her former husband Blake Fielder-Civil) having sold their stories to British tabloids, the feeling is that everyone, including dear old dad, wanted to ride the gravy train as long as possible. This is a must-see documentary, if only for the wonderful music (original score other than Amy’s songs provided by Antonio Pinto). It is useful as a cautionary tale, if nothing else, and I can’t believe it won’t garner Oscar nods, come spring.
Ultimately, as Amy predicted in song, “My odds are stacked. I go to black.”