New Amy Winehouse film reignites interest in her controversial, yet tragic, life

A new film on the life and death of Amy Winehouse has been hailed a masterpiece. But its release has been mired in controversy, writes Suzanne Harrington.

New Amy Winehouse film reignites interest in her controversial, yet tragic, life

NEW film, Amy, about tragic singer Amy Winehouse, has just premiered at Cannes, and has been threatened with legal action before its cinema release on July 3.

It depicts the collision of her talent with her fame — Amy was found dead from alcohol poisoning in her house in Camden, North London, on July 23, 2011. She was 27.

Amy’s father, Mitch Winehouse, is not happy about his own portrayal in Amy. He has said in tabloid interviews that his depiction as an “absent” parent is inaccurate, and that the filmmakers are “trying to destroy” him, by saying he cashed in on his daughter’s fame.

READ NEXT:  Amy Winehouse film wows screening .

When Amy was in St Lucia, away from London and the heroin and crack cocaine to which she was addicted, Mitch turned up with a Channel 4 film crew.

He says they had discussed the idea prior to her departure. Her response suggested otherwise: “Why have you done this to me? You have to come out with a camera crew? Are you only interested in what you can get out of me?”

Nor was Mitch Winehouse happy with the inclusion in the film of Amy’s husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, of whom the Winehouse family are emphatically not fond.

Fielder-Civil suggested Amy’s path to destruction was due to her father’s infidelity when she was a teenager; Mitch believed it was due to her drug addiction, which he blamed squarely on Fielder-Civil.

The film shows that Mitch left the family when Amy was in her formative years, and this had a huge emotional impact on her — as did his return.

The relationship between Mitch and his sensitive, chaotic, insanely talented daughter was intense; Amy’s relationship with Blake was catastrophic.

In his defense, Mitch Winehouse has written with honestly in his 2012 book, Amy My Daughter, about the impotence and frustration of trying to help someone in the thrall of full-blown addiction.

Amy, however, is not some cheap, salacious cash-in. It is directed by Asif Kapadia, whose previous documentary was Senna, about the Brazilian Formula 1 racing driver, and produced by James Gay-Rees, who also produced the Banksy documentary, Exit Through The Gift Shop. Critics are calling the film “a masterpiece” and “deeply moving”.

Kapadia interviewed 80 friends and family of the singer, and has not publicly commented on the displeasure of Amy’s dad. “Nobody said anything they felt so uncomfortable with that they wouldn’t sign a release, and that includes her family,” Kapadia told the press.

“They would not be in the film unless they’d agreed.” Eschewing the usual talking heads favoured by documentary makers, the film uses much previously unseen footage of Amy Winehouse, filmed by friends who perhaps could sense that they were recording somebody out of the ordinary, long before her meteoric success destroyed her.

Kapadia says in making documentaries he feels he gets to know his subjects. Being Senna, he says, sounded fantastic, whereas being Amy sounded “bloody stressful”.

Or, as Nick Johnstone, author of 2008’s Amy Amy Amy (the first book to cash in on the singer’s very public unravelling), wrote: “Everyone wanted a piece of her, and, in response, she seemed to get smaller and smaller. Every escapade and drama and rumour seemed to chip away at her louder-than-life personality.

Candid interviews took their toll. Expectations took their toll. And the music started to get shoved into the background.” Three years later, she was dead.

Amy Winehouse is described in the film, by friends, as the most intelligent person they’d ever met, the most authentic. She had a deeply emotional relationship with music.

A fan of hip hop, R&B and jazz, she couldn’t find the songs that expressed how she felt — so she wrote her own: “I wouldn’t write anything that wasn’t directly personal to me, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to tell the story right.”

When she sang, she sounded like Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughan — but when she spoke, articulate and funny and bright as ten buttons, she was a North London gal, common and flat-vowelled and utterly without pretension.

Asked early on in her career — her talent had glared through from childhood — if she thought she might become famous, her response was premonitory.

“I don’t think I’m going to be at all famous,” she said. “I don’t think I could handle it. I would probably go mad. I would go mad.” She did go mad. It was a swirl of madness, encompassing love, fame and addiction.

“I fell in love with someone who I would die for,” she said of her husband, Blake, to whom she was married for two years. While their love was undoubtedly genuine, it was also deeply destructive — for her.

"He introduced her to hard drugs — she didn’t need an introduction to weed, which she already smoked in Rastafarian quantities — and he was unfaithful to her, which devastated her.

She channeled this pain into writing her second album, Back To Black, which catapulted her into the kind of fame she prophesised would drive her mad.

From declaring early on in her career that “I’m not a girl trying to be a star — I’m just a girl who sings”, Amy went on to win six Grammys.

Annie Lennox had seen Amy perform in a London pub when Amy was still a teenager. “I was completely blown away,” Lennox remembers. “She was like a woman in her 30s…I was in awe of her. I thought, ‘wow, you have a special talent, you’re 18, where did that come from?’”

And then she was huge. Rolling Stone magazine introduced her to the American market, via the equation: “(Aretha Franklin x Janis Joplin) – food = Amy Winehouse.”

Despite the huge talent, she physically shrank. It was not just from drugs — she was also bulimic.

Her brother, Alex, says that it was bulimia that killed her, rather than alcohol poisoning; she had been bulimic since she was a teenager. Her parents thought it was a phase, but it wasn’t.

While the Camden coroner confirmed that it was the two empty bottles of vodka found next to her body which had killed her, her body had been weakened beyond endurance.

What’s left is her music. While we have been distracted by the drama of her life and death, it is her music that endures. Haunting and jaunty in turn. She never wanted fame or wealth or adulation; she just wanted to be loved by her man, to hang out playing pool in the pubs of Camden, and to sing.

In one of her last conversations with her bodyguard, Andrew Morris, the man who found her body, she told him, “If I could give it all back and walk down that street with no hassle, I would.”

READ NEXT:  Amy Winehouse film wows screening .

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