There’s a lot to be uncomfortable about when watching Asif Kapadia’s newest documentary Amy, which traces the rise and fall of British singer Amy Winehouse, who died from accidental alcohol poisoning at age 27 in 2011.
The first, and most obvious point is crystallized during footage from a televised interview where Winehouse states rather simply, “The more people see of me, the more they’ll realize I’m only good for making music.” When Winehouse said those words her star was in ascension. Her Back To Black album was a worldwide hit and she had become a magnet for tabloid attention. Winehouse was in demand. Unfortunately, that demand came with a cost.
Winehouse was a singular singing talent, a unique voice weaned on jazz classics whose confessional songs about drinking, drugs, relationships and nightlife misadventures brilliantly modernized the form. But Winehouse was also frail. A delicate soul perhaps too sensitive and ill-equipped to handle the impact of the music she created once the world had decided how important it was.
Kapadia, who also helmed the brilliant Senna documentary in 2010, mines an extensive collection of home movies, concert footage and interviews with Winehouse and her friends, family, acquaintances and business associates, to weave an open-ended tale with a few obvious villains. Amy’s father Mitch Winehouse comes across as particularly odious, a stage dad dazzled by his proximity to new fame and the rewards it garners. Love interest Blake Fielder-Civil, generally considered the cause of her drug addiction, is a parasitic, enabling presence. And there’s a not-so-subtle suggestion that manager Raye Cosbert had little concern for Winehouse, at least when weighed against Winehouse as a vehicle for worldwide earning potential. It’s primarily these people who kept Winehouse on the road when she didn’t want to be, and who allowed her to remain in drug and drink when it was clear these things were having a horrible, dangerous effect on her.
While they all make good and suitable objects of scorn, there’s every indication that Winehouse desperately wanted these people in her life. Her need for her father’s approval is a constant, she fired long-time manager Nick Shymansky in favour of Cosbert, and Fielder-Civil, “her Blakey,” is the compass point of romantic clarity for an otherwise scared, confused girl. What she saw in these people, what they provided her, we don’t know.
There’s another more difficult relationship to quantify in all of this, though, and that’s Amy Winehouse’s connection to the rest of us. After all, every news story that every one of us clicked through about her bloody ballet shoes, every Amy Winehouse Halloween costume we encouraged, every bizarre incident with Pete Doherty we tittered about, all these things built up a cult of personality around Winehouse that she couldn’t properly navigate.
This is perhaps the most difficult part of Amy Winehouse’s life and death for regular people to deal with. That her inner circle failed her is obvious. And that Winehouse was a troubled soul who died tragically is obvious, too. But what psychic toll did the rest of us wreak? Every concert ticket sold, every song request on the radio, every breathless click through to the latest Amy scandal, all these things contributed to her downfall. The very act of being interested in Winehouse actually made her life worse. Our fandom, our curiosity feed a machine that Winehouse couldn’t handle and because of that we’re all a little bit to blame.