A few days ago I saw the documentary film Amy about Amy Winehouse. Other than hearing her song “Rehab” and seeing her image on magazines, I knew nothing about her until I watched the film. I have now heard all of her music, and feel foolish I allowed the tabloid image of her to deter me from seeking it out before. When the film replays her death, it’s nearly impossible to not feel a part of your heart fall away. Mine did.
The film reveals how closely Amy’s songs mirrored what was going on in her life. On her album Back to Black, there’s heartache I’m sure she hoped she’d live long enough to atone. “Love is a losing game” wants love to win. The sting of the line “I died a hundred times” wants so much to be believed. “I told you I was trouble,” asks for a kind, trustworthy soul to see the misguided attempts for love. She was only 27 and she was going through the lessons of her relationships the way any of us do in our twenties, except hers became drenched in the sickeningly oppressive celebrity culture and the hardest drugs money could buy. Amy was loving, loyal, sensitive, kind, witty, but painfully lonely. Her personality was magnetic. There’s a scene of her in the recording booth singing “Back to Black” and at the end she says timidly, “It gets sad there at the end, doesn’t it?” Smiling, with the corners of her mouth turned down, it’s as if she is asking permission: is it okay to be this sad? She proudly trots out of the recording booth, having finished her work—the work of making a space where it is okay to be that sad, knowing full well that she will be heard.
The film trusts its viewer. The filmmaker Asif Kapadia lays out the pieces of Amy’s life, no piece seeming to weigh more than any other, and he leaves it up to the audience how or which pieces might fit together to bring insight into Amy’s life, death, and legacy.
One of the more noticeable pieces in the film is the pivotal age and transition in Amy’s life at 9 years old, when apparently this dark loneliness entered her like a parasite that could never be satiated. That year, her mother and father divorced. That is also the year when she said she realized she could do anything she wanted. In effect, Amy realized she could eat the entire bag of candy and no one would stop her. Amy told her mother eventually, “You need to say no to me.” But her mother was not able to say no to her. Amy was shown at just 9 years old that she controlled the world, and for a child, that is a very scary thing. In so many of her actions, Amy seemed to be trying to hand back this power to her parents, especially to her father. Her friends comment in the film that Amy turned into a child around her father, and that she worshipped the ground he walked on. There is an image of her a few days before she died, leaning on his shoulder and sucking her thumb. This is the man who said that Amy didn’t need rehab, after she had told him she would go if he thought she needed it. She gave the power of that decision to him, the way a child does, and he responded like a child. It’s so easy to confuse permissiveness with loving your child, but as Amy plummets, you want so much for her to have a firm moment of tough love from her father, the person she seems willing to listen to the most. It’s heartbreaking to hear her father’s voice-over in the film regret that moment when he said she didn’t need rehab, and even more heartbreaking for a completely different reason when he continues, explaining that ultimately Amy was the only person who could have saved herself. It becomes more difficult to feel compassionate for Amy’s father when he brings a camera crew to St. Lucia to have his daughter filmed for his own personal gain at a time when Amy was finally unencumbered by paparazzi, sans what became her masquerade of eyeliner and beehive, and on what appeared to be an uphill trend toward wellness. She said to him that she’d give him money if he needed money (rather than have a camera crew film her) and then begs him to be kind to her on camera after he is callous. In that moment, she was the parent cautiously scolding the child—playing his game only to be utterly exploited by it. Her attempts to show she was the child needing structure, safety, guidance, and limitations blew back in her face, but her attempts to be the adult show her she might only be loveable when convenient or profitable. Also at the age of 9, Amy developed bulimia. When she told her parents about it, separately, they each dismissed it and did nothing. Every opportunity she could, in a kind of Alice in Wonderland freefall, Amy acted out, attempting to prove she was the child needing love and care, literally making herself sick in extreme efforts to either self-soothe or self-destruct, looking for someone to take the reigns, someone to guide her in the blackness of her experience. It started with bulimia, then with marijuana, alcohol, reckless sex, harder drugs, and further with the belief that she was nothing but trouble. Near the end of her life, as she walked on the street, hounded by paparazzi, her bones as visible as a concentration camp survivor, and the people close to her feeding on her like rats, Amy seemed to have faded fully into the blackness she sang about.
However, in the midst of it, she was transforming the R&B music scene, opening her mouth in a fearless, expressive wail of her every vulnerability, hope, and darkest disappointment. As her music brought her stardom, she couldn’t really believe the power of her work, of her authentic self shining out and leading others. Amy used a roll of her eyes or a drug-laden performance to diminish it, or dismiss it completely. In her earlier career, before her fame, she found blissful joy in her music and she said it was the only thing she desired. But as her celebrity and drug-use increased, she mocked her work, calling the jazz she initially loved and emulated in her first album “elitist.” More and more it appears she used drugs as a way to escape her power as an artist, even sitting down on stage and refusing to sing in her last performance. It was a full-blown drug-aided tantrum in an effort to hand back the power placed in her by the world, similar to her attempts she made with her parents, but this time it was between herself and 50,000 adoring fans. Before her immense success was obvious, she herself said that fame would do her in, that she wouldn’t be able to handle it. She tried to find an anchor in her parents. Then she tried with her husband, but he was a man as unanchored as she was. Her need for love and safety with him was dangerously distorted when she said to him, “I’ll do anything you do,” referring to his drug-use, and “I’ll cut myself if you cut yourself,” once again handing over her autonomy to someone else. Her relationships, her drug-use, and her bulimia succeeded in making herself smaller and dependent.
Watching the arc of footage of Amy from the fresh-faced, smiling young girl to the emaciated, bloodstained celebrity is enough to make you scream at the screen, “It’s coming! Get out of the there. The killer is right behind you!” It feels like she is committing suicide right in front of everyone, bit by bit, and then in giant leaps. It’s obvious how much her community is aiding and abetting her demise. She becomes unrecognizable not just in consequence of her drug use, but also on purpose in what seems like an intentional effort to create a mask. It seems to start out in play, in fun, the way a child puts on a mask, a dress-up party...let’s pretend. Her beehive and batwing eyeliner free her and give her confidence. As her addictions take a deeper hold, her mask becomes more for protection. Then later, the mask and the authentic self merge. They get slammed together in the confusing, chaotic Pollock painting of paparazzi, tours, money, drugs, and charts. Her beehive gets larger and larger, absurdly big, disturbingly tangled. Her eyeliner gets sloppier, and then completely smears down her face at times. Perhaps it is all because she needed to hide more and more, an effort to feel safe, an effort to disguise the trouble within her. I’m not sure. But it’s hard to ignore the caricature she became. Someone who was pretending to be Amy Winehouse. .
Thankfully, the film shows us that Amy was a hero as much or more than a victim. Amy was an adult and made her choices that lead to her death, no matter the dysfunctional roles she found herself playing. Her father’s remark that she was the only person who could save herself is true. And she was trying—she just didn’t get to finish the work of recovery. Right at the end of her life, she began calling her friends from childhood who truly loved and accepted her, who faded away during her ascent to fame when they said they could not support her behavior and drug use— truly the most loving acts made by anyone presented in the film. Amy was finally looking for the support and love she needed in the people, these friends, who were safe. She had divorced her husband who had been the biggest influence of her harder drug use, and who had taunted her in a video when they went to rehab when she said, “I quite like it here actually.” She was reconnecting with jazz, the roots of her love for music and inspiration. When she sat down on stage in her last performance, perhaps it was actually a redemptive moment. She was making a choice to end what she didn’t believe in anymore, knowing she could rebuild something different, something that reflected the true values she was beginning to realize. When she called her friends about the show and subsequent tour cancellation by her label, she was not worried about it. Rather, Amy was excited because she was going to get to go to her friend’s wedding after all, something the tour was going to prevent. In her refusal to sing, Amy was choosing her close, loving friends over stardom and a moneymaking tour. She was choosing a more ordinary existence rather than the fame and celebrity by which she felt betrayed.
In the film, Amy’s father and Amy’s husband try to blame Amy’s downfall on her addiction. Just because a person has to find treatment for addiction first, before addressing other issues, doesn’t mean it occurs in a vacuum. We can chock it up to addiction, but what really happened?
The truth is, Amy had power. People think of power as a negative thing. It’s a loaded word because it is often used when we see it being abused. Many times examples of power are people suppressing others. That is a false sense of power. It functions as an optical illusion. It’s like asking everyone standing next to you to sit down and claiming how tall you are. In this world, we call that power, but that is actually powerlessness. Amy had true, authentic power. She invented the world, as every artist does, when she sat down and got to work, making songs. She wrote them, recorded them, and created something that no one can ever take away from her or any of us. Of all the people surrounding her, she had the power. The Dapkings needed her songs to make their music. The recording engineers needed her songs to do their work. The record label needed her songs to sell and make money. The paparazzi needed her image to exploit. Her father needed her to feel worthy. Her husband needed her to feel valid. Everyone needed Amy, and what she may have realized right at the end is that she didn’t need them in the ways they needed her. What I think Amy didn’t know is that she could trust her power. As it is for all of us, power is something we need. Without power, we cannot act. Because of power, we are able to create in all sorts of ways. Power is the bigness of living our authentic selves. It is our claim and choice to live outside what others prefer, and it is what makes us free. Amy made a platform for her authentic self to shine and inspire, and that is something she never needed to diminish. People may have tried to get her to believe that her power was hurtful. But she didn’t need them to do that to believe that power was dangerous. This was her belief. As a child, Amy had to take on power that she was not ready for and it hurt her. It wrought wounds from which she never healed. She couldn’t trust power even when she became an adult and a singer of international acclaim. She was confused between her power—a power that was authentic—and others’ false sense of power. Her father, her husband, and her management team—their power wasn’t really power. It was a powerlessness that fed off of minimizing her power and forming their identities through hers. Amy was not able to say no to these people, nor was she able to say no to the inner beliefs that drove her destructive behavior. With her music, she made a space where her soul was free to play, where she was loved, where she had power. But, in the end, she did not have the time to find trust in it. Nevertheless, her power endures. In time, it will win over the negative interjects of the tabloids and the inner and outer distortions she endured.
Amy, your power, your music, it can never be diminished. It can never be stolen from you, and, thank God, it can never be taken from us. Your power still guides those who hear it—to speak what makes us most vulnerable, to unabashedly be ourselves, to wail the truth of the moment. Thank you, Amy. I’m so sorry, Amy. Rest in peace, Amy.