Amy: a moving portrayal of the struggle to cope with celebrity culture

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I don’t think I’m going to be at all famous. I don’t think I could handle it. I would go mad.

So said Amy Winehouse, following the release of her debut album, Frank. Asif Kapadia’s documentary Amy goes on to show how wrong she was about the first part of that statement, and how right she was about the second.

Over her short career, Winehouse released two albums, won a range of awards (including five Grammy Awards for her 2006 release Back to Black), and pave the way for a wave of talented female artists, from Duffy and Adele to Lady Gaga. Yet her exceptional talents as a singer and songwriter were regularly overshadowed by photographs of her frail body, condemnations of her public alcohol and drug abuse, and gossip about her volatile marriage to (and eventual divorce from) fellow drug addict Blake Fielder-Civil.

Making Amy

Only a year after her untimely death in 2011, Winehouse’s record company Universal Music approached Asif Kapadia – director of Senna (2010) – with the idea of a film about her life. Kapadia went on to conduct over 100 interviews with Winehouse’s friends, family and colleagues, in order to reconstruct her story and find reasons for her demise.

But amid the chronicles of chaos and suffering, the other aim of this film is to show Winehouse for the extraordinary artist that she was. This is arguably Kapadia’s biggest achievement. This film is worth seeing for anyone interested in Winehouse’s music; not only because of the variety and amount of previously unseen footage, but also because of the way it values her lyrics as poetry. Winehouse’s words roll over the screen whenever she sings, marking the reclamation of Winehouse as a songwriter – not just a remarkable voice.

Although Kapadia clearly admires his subject, Winehouse’s family have distanced themselves from the documentary. Once you’ve seen it, this will come as no surprise. Winehouse’s mother Janice remains largely unheard, while her father, Mitch, seems all too present.

A family feud

According to the film, Mitch left the family when Winehouse was nine but featured heavily in her adult life – and not always in a good way. Mitch himself has publicly criticised the way he was portrayed by Kapadia. In the film, when Mitch speaks about the onset of Winehouse’s alcohol problems in 2005, he appears to say “she didn’t need to go to rehab”. But Mitch claims that the quote has been edited, and that he really said “she didn’t need to go to rehab at the time”. He is portrayed as protective, but also opportunistic.

Winehouse and her father. Beacon Radio/Flickr, CC BY-SA

One wants to believe that he genuinely cared about his daughter’s well-being. Indeed, he is often depicted guarding her from the paparazzi’s lenses. But one cannot help thinking that any negative impressions of him are not just down to unfair editing. In one particularly uncomfortable scene from 2009, Mitch Winehouse tells his daughter off for not being friendly enough to tourists who ask for a picture with her. In front of the camera, Winehouse is seen pleading with him to be nice to her.

This scene takes place in St Lucia, where Winehouse fled to escape the press attention and drug culture surrounding her in Camden. It seems to capture their relationship perfectly: Winehouse is obviously unhappy about the additional media attention her father brings into her life, but ultimately craves his affection and approval.

Up for grabs

But this film goes far beyond Winehouse’s relationship with her father, offering a harrowing account of contemporary celebrity culture. The avalanche of tributes which followed her death often neglected to address the ways Winehouse was treated by the media. After the release of Back to Black, she was regularly hounded by paparazzi. This is stressful to watch unfold, even from the safety of a cinema seat; it’s hard to imagine what it must have felt like to have them outside the front door every day.

Winehouse was turned into a particularly cruel media spectacle: she became one of the myriad female “train wreck” celebrities, alongside Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. Her ailing body was ruthlessly mocked, and her personal misery was seen by the tabloids as fair game for public scrutiny.

But what ultimately makes Amy such a moving experience its its ability to show how every aspect of her life – whether professional or personal – was always up for consumption. The cameras never stopped rolling: from footage of a teenage Winehouse singing “happy birthday” to her friend, to the filming of her funeral. A more stable person may have been able to resist this exploitation, but as she herself said, she just couldn’t “handle it”.