Monday, 6 July 2015

On Amy Winehouse and Amy


Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015)

Look, I can't review this from a detached viewpoint. I can't reliably assess its effectiveness as a documentary as though it might have been about any subject, someone I had little prior knowledge of. I can only review it from the perspective of an Amy Winehouse fan.

But not a super fan. I mean; I loved her, but I didn't follow her. I haven't read all there is to read about her; I haven't watched every documentary that was made. I never got involved with fan forums or anything like that. I never wanted to go down the YouTube rabbit hole of whatever candid footage of her there is to pore over. When she died my love for her remained suspended, and I continued to appreciate her primarily through her music, as I always had. Out of a mixture of respect and reverence and fear, I've never wanted to know too much about my heroes. But this, this felt important. I needed to see this.

Amy is a devastating film.

There are few 'talking heads': the interviewees' words are almost always played over footage of Amy or bird's-eye panoramas of her beloved London. This can be a disconcerting film, one designed to make you uncomfortable in more ways than the obvious - for example, there are a few silences that seem to go on for too long. The segments that would be, out of context, funny - such as a sequence in which Amy pulls a series of bored and disgusted faces while an inane interviewer, off-screen, blathers on about Dido - are not so much tinged with poignancy as saturated with it; it's impossible to laugh. A phone message left for ex-manager Nick Shymansky, in which she says she will love him unconditionally, 'until the day my heart fails and I drop down dead', is breathtakingly prescient, haunting to a sickening degree.

Her screen presence is so alive and vivid. I've heard those words many times about celebrities and actors and whoever, but I don't think I've ever really known them to be true until I saw this film. There are points in Amy when it's honestly impossible to believe that she's dead. The first of many times I wept was during an early performance, a pitch for a record label, of 'I Heard Love is Blind'. I'd seen it before, and yet framed like this it made me feel like my heart would burst. How could something so vital and elemental ever disappear?

There is a very strong sense of 'the present' in this film, that at every stage you are there, living that moment. This is a powerful thing, though not a good one, because it creates a horrible, nauseating tension, like being inside a vehicle bound for an inexorable crash.

A lot of coverage of Amy has focused on the idea that it seeks to hold someone, perhaps everyone, responsible for what happened to her. (Her father, Mitch, has spoken out against it. It's not hard to see why: he comes across terribly.) I wouldn't exactly say that the film tries to apportion blame, but how can you tell a story like this without implicating anyone? Even us, the fans. The people who want to see this documentary four years later, with all our morbid curiosity.

The word that comes up again and again in so many reviews I've read is 'complicit'. Amy makes the viewer complicit in the tragedy of Amy's story. This is particularly the case towards the end. The footage of Amy's last, disastrous, aborted tour, as she refuses to perform and the crowd stops cheering and starts jeering her, switches between official footage and recordings that must have been made by fans in the crowd with their phones. These are people who've paid to see her specifically, not random passers-by or festivalgoers, but they start throwing out abuse anyway, and you're placed there among them. You're reminded how hard it could be to continue to be a fan of someone who kept fucking up, kept getting further away from what had made them brilliant in the first place. You see clips of TV personalities making jokes at her expense, so desperately unfunny you wonder how anyone could have laughed. But people did laugh, and few of us who loved her would've stood up and told them to stop.

As the film approaches its end it becomes more harrowing. The sequences - increasingly frequent, depressingly similar, as the film goes on - of paparazzi harassing her, almost knocking her over and shouting 'cheer up', are grotesque. But, again, paparazzi don't exist in a vacuum. The demand wasn't just fed by those laughing at her, but by people like me, who desperately wanted her to be okay, but also wanted pictures and new music.

There is a tricky dichotomy at work here - Amy indicts the way the media pursued her, her management pushed her; how people around her used her, and the public treated her mental and physical decline as tabloid entertainment. But of course there are ways in which it is doing the same things, showing us uncomfortably intimate footage, spinning a story out of it that may not exactly be 'entertainment' but is certainly entertainment, as genres go. This film wouldn't be what it is if we didn't have those awful paparazzi videos, if people, often supposedly her friends, hadn't so often stuck a camera or a phone in her face even at her lowest ebbs.

Amy is a complicated, honest portrait, and it doesn't shy away from showing anyone and everyone was at fault. But despite all the talk of blame, I don't think it gives any single answer. It made me angry at how little some of those who were meant to be close to her did to actually help her, seeming somehow to believe she was capable of coping alone when she was fading and failing right in front of their eyes. But a few days later I found myself wondering how differently I would have acted had I been in their shoes. How much can you help someone? How much can you give someone? How do you judge whether your 'help' is doing more harm than good?

I felt like I knew her - one of those phrases that always sounds stupid when said, even though it feels true. I felt we were similar - likewise. it sounds arrogant to say about someone so talented, ridiculous to say about a very famous person, bizarre to say about an addict. But nevertheless true. From Amy I learned we even took the same antidepressants, at one point. I'm the same age as her. The age she was. Should have been.

I've written about it before, I think (I can't bear to read back over any of it right now) but one reason I felt so much about, and for, Amy and her music was that Back To Black came into my life at a very specific point, when I was in a terrible relationship. I lived the story she tells in those songs. A woman falls in love with an unsuitable man. The man breaks it off, goes back to his ex-girlfriend. Then the man comes back. I believed at the time that this was a fated happy ending. It was really the start of a relationship that would prove to be abusive and destructive. Sure, we didn't take heroin, I didn't marry him, he never went to prison, the similarities were never that obvious. But it was abusive and destructive all the same. Laid out on screen this seemed clearer, the parallels more uncanny, than ever.

It is hard for me to parse Amy and Blake's relationship. Because at the time I saw it as this great tragic love affair - because I saw it as a parallel to my own, so of course I had to, of course I had to root for them to be together, to be happy, against all odds - how else could I see it? Everyone who has been in a doomed relationship knows that 'us against the world' feeling; how it's more intoxicating than anything. And it is so hard even now to divorce myself from that. When I see them together on the screen, there it still is, alive somewhere deep: that hope that these images aren't frozen in time, after all, that they can be rewound and reshaped into some other ending.

But I got to grow past it, the years that took -the years it took simply to acknowledge how awful it had been and stop fooling myself. Amy never did. She was in another relationship when she died, and Blake already had a baby with another woman, but she continues to be defined by it, partly because of the widespread (and confirmed correct) belief that he introduced her to hard drugs, partly because their relationship inspired the classic songs on Back To Black. Even in death she is very much defined by it. This doomed love and what it drove her to. That is the saddest thing, of course, that she won't ever be allowed to move on.

When the narrative reached the inevitable point of Amy's death, I literally collapsed sobbing - loudly, embarrassingly, inconsolably.

When the film ended I felt the loss of Amy all over again.

Her talent shines out of the screen so fierce and bright that near the end, when Tony Bennett says she deserves to be counted among the greats, I wanted to snarl, out loud, of course she fucking does. How absurd that it would even need to be said.

You know that space when you have just been heartbroken - the numbness - when you can't remember how to care about anything else - when food and books and things you normally enjoy seem like alien objects - when you feel you will spit at anyone who expects you to care about any banal, routine thing, because what could be bigger - what could matter more - than this pain - what could ever matter again? That is how I felt after I left the cinema and went home to bed.

Amy is a devastating film.

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1 comment:

  1. This was beautifully written and I completely get where you're coming from.

    Lis / last year's girl x