Review by: Vicky Unwin
Director: Asif Kapadia
This cannot be an objective review. Amy and our daughter, Louise, died within a few months of each, both from drugs. Her poison was alcohol, Louise’s was ketamine. They used to hang out in Camden together, playing pool at The Good Mixer. There is even a scene in the film with one of Louise’s friends. Both of them were clean when they died, although Louise had never been an addict like Amy, just a ‘recreational’ user. How daft that word is, when it leads to death.
In the wake of their deaths, Mitch and I got to know each other through our work in trying to educate people about the dangers of drugs, of which alcohol is of course the biggest killer of the lot. We even had a joint event at the House of Lords, where Mitch sang with one of Louise’s best friends, Tim Arnold, the Soho Hobo.
So Asif Kapadia’s film is laden with sad and poignant memories for me. I wasn’t sure if I could bear to watch it, let alone write about it, especially knowing Mitch’s objections to his portrayal.
As in Senna, Kapadia’s BAFTA award-winning documentary about the eponymous Brazilian racing driver, there is no narrator: the movie is fashioned from a series of film clips taken by family, friends and lovers. The voices are mainly Amy’s, peppered with conversations and reminiscences. Of course, Kapadia exerts editorial control in directing us to the scenes from her life he wishes us to see, but leaves us to judge for ourselves as to who bears responsibility for the hounding of Amy Winehouse.
Naturally Amy is the star of her own picture: she shines out from the first time she sings happy birthday as a child, a small girl with an enormous, grown-up voice. Where did this North London Jewish girl get that? Jonathan Ross remarks with glee on her voice being ‘common’ at one point, something they both shared in addition to their family background.
As we see her growing up and getting up to all sorts of teenage mischief, we do sense that she is looking for a father-figure: Mitch himself admits that he left the marriage when she was very young; Janice, her mother says he was ‘never there’. Why else would she latch on to unsuitable boys, ending up married to the vain, drug addicted Blake Fielder-Civil, who unashamedly sought and revelled in the lime-light and admits to being her dealer. Less unsurprisingly he abandons her when she is on the skids.
Alcohol and Drugs
Through all of the alcohol and early drug abuse, her personality and sense of fun shine out. Although her girlfriends despair of her, they still love her and rescue her; Mitch, despite his absence, was also always there for her. He was a devoted and loving father and would have done anything for his ‘Daddy’s girl’ – the tattoo Amy had on her shoulder. OK, so it wasn’t so smart to turn up in St Lucia with a film crew, something I am sure he regrets to this day. It does not cast him in a good light; but I will stick up for Mitch – he adored his Amy.
I know he came running when she picked up the phone and cried for help, time and time again. I know he uttered the the now-famous sound-bite, ‘Amy doesn’t need rehab’ – he claims the word ‘now’ was cut – which she used to dramatic effect in her haunting song of that name. As she says when she wins the Grammy (winking mischievously when Justin Timberlake’s name on the short-list is read out) – it is ‘so boring without drugs’.
The music is of course key to the film and her song-writing is largely autobiographical, from the obvious Rehab, which gets increasingly ragged as it is played throughout the film, charting her descent into hell, to the much earlier and ominously foresighted words, ‘Played out by the band / Love is a losing hand…Though I battle blind / Love is a fate resigned’, through to her heart-breaking duo with Tony Bennett in the closing scenes ‘My life a wreck you’re making/You know I’m yours for just the taking/I’d gladly surrender myself to you, body and soul’.
I remember seeing Amy perform at Nelson Mandela’s birthday celebrations with Louise. She was at the height of her addictions, clutching the hem of her dress, her skinny little legs and emaciated body just above us on the stage. She could barely get the words out. Louise was visibly shocked by her appearance. It was the last time she saw her.
The sad truth is that you can’t stop people from being what they are, but you can try and save them from themselves. Amy had an addictive personality from a young age, fueled by her prodigious talent, and had agents and the media forcing her into situations, which she wasn’t strong enough to cope with. They were ruthless in their exploitation of this fragile talent, when they should have been shielding and protecting her.
How poignant her words, early on in the film, when she says that she wouldn’t survive being famous. We know she didn’t, but Kapadia’s masterful direction somehow allows us to feel there could be a different outcome.
If only, you keep saying to yourself, if only…