“DEAD AT 27”. It’s a headline that has become far too familiar in the entertainment industry. Are people deliberately trying to die at that age? Is it all just a terrible coincidence? No-one can really know, but what we do know, is that The 27 Club should stop taking members. And fast.
British jazz sensation Amy Winehouse joined the infamous club on July 23rd, 2011, taking up an eternal residency alongside late greats such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. As with many before her, alcohol poisoning was ultimately to blame, preceded by years of substance abuse and bulimia.
On the back of Cobain: Montage of Heck, comes another music biopic, this time from director Asif Kapadia (Senna). When we think of Amy Winehouse, we tend to think of drugs, booze and partying, but throughout her teenage years, Amy showed the potential to become a great entertainer. Over time, this plucky young woman became a caricature – feeble framed, big-haired and tattooed – but the documentary Amy, depicts an artist first and foremost, and someone who definitely had more to offer than we all gave her credit for.
From a grainy, family home video singing a sultry rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’, to sets at teeny-tiny jazz clubs, Amy was undoubtedly a star on the rise. Her voice was full, rich and mature well beyond her years. Even her idol Tony Bennett was a fan, and their song ‘Body and Soul’ became the last song she ever recorded. For him and many other industry enthusiasts, Amy represented a bygone era yet to be explored in the modern pop world of the Noughties.
(Click the above photo for a moving teaser trailer)
A Londoner from a Jewish family, Amy was brought up by a mother who couldn’t handle her, and a father who ignored her (until she became famous, of course). She was close to her grandmother Cynthia, who – as a singer herself – nurtured Amy’s talent and kept her in line as best she could before she died.
At the age of 17, Amy landed a lucrative deal with a record company. At 20, her debut album Frank came out, and Amy was booked for numerous tours and press junkets. Then at 23 came the follow-up we all know and love, Back to Black. Recorded with the help of music producer extraordinaire Mark Ronson, the album shot Amy to almost instant stardom, which in the midst of heavy substance abuse by this stage, was quickly damaging.
From the filmmakers point of view, it was crucial that Amy was not going to be something audiences had seen before – a rehash of rehab stints, abuse and untimely death. “This is a film about Amy and her writing,” Kapadia has said. “People didn’t realise how important her lyrics were and how personal they were.” It’s easy to forget just how young Amy was when fame came knocking too, so the film’s early footage – recorded perhaps a little too much by friends and family at the time – is a revelation.
Kapadia collates a vast collection of public and private material to chart Winehouse’s career, narrated by those who were with her for each milestone. Between festivals appearances, intense media scrums and flashing lights day-in and day-out, even in the audience the effect is uncomfortable and claustrophobic, so you can’t imagine what it must have been like for Amy Winehouse. The decision to not do a talking heads style takes some getting used to initially too, but the voices alone carry so much emotion it doesn’t matter too much.
(Click the above photo for an early audition tape)
Key characters appear in the movie, juxtaposed by personal narration mainly built upon hind-sight or regret. Ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil is one of those, however, remorse is something he doesn’t show. He was a prominent figure in Amy’s life, and his bad influence upon her isn’t watered down. Coming out of Camden club scene with the likes of Pete Doherty, Blake’s hold over Amy was magnetic and manipulative. Drug counsellor Chip Somers tells how each rehabilitation attempt was ruined by Blake smuggling drugs into the clinic or demanding to be put in with her.
Her manager/father Mitch was also hugely to blame for his daughter’s health decline, laughing off his ex-wives concerns at her eating disorder and – as the hit song ‘Rehab’ suggested – telling Amy time and time again that she didn’t need help. Touring and selling records was his priority, and in the grips of a major, long-lasting meltdown, neither ended up mattering to Amy.
Girlfriends Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert bring the most emotion and heartache to the story. Best friends from childhood, the girls choke up when they speak of their late friend. Juliette recalls one particularly tragic moment when Amy won an astounding six Grammys for Back to Black. Upon receiving her awards via satellite and sober in London, she pulled Juliette on stage with her and whispered “It’s so boring without drugs.”
Amy Winehouse had four crippling addictions in her short-lived life – food, alcohol, drugs and men – and ultimately, all four killed her. In Asif Kapadia’s documentary, we see a woman who had so much love, passion and talent to give the world, and all it gave her back was temptations and obstacles. Many people – including Amy herself – are to blame for what happened, but what we can do for her now, is enjoy her music. She always did.
Amy will be released nationally on July 2, with the exception of Perth on July 16 and the Gold Coast Arts Centre on July 23.