The question it concentrates on, to the exclusion of anything else, is: ‘At what point could Amy have been saved?’ It’s a non sequitur – because she wasn’t – but, according to her first manager, a man who seems most interested in slagging off her second manager, it was just before the genesis of her second record, when he drove young Winehouse into the middle of nowhere and told her she needed to ‘go to rehab’ because she was drinking too much. He explains – rather smugly, to my ear – that if her father had supported the idea then Winehouse may never have written that record at all, ‘My daddy thinks I’m fine’, but she could be alive today. The fact that he has so little appreciation of the genius of what she did with Back To Black, on which the song ‘Rehab’ appears, suggests to me she knew what she was doing switching managers.
Amy Winehouse lived – at a frantic pace and with great gusto – for her music, throwing herself into life, recklessly plunging into experience and emotion. Kapadia portrays her as the victim of uncurbed urges, while I see her as the heroine who transcended them. Her life was a tragedy in the true meaning of the word – a woman brought to ruin by the flaws which made her self. ‘Love’, she wrote and smouldered-sang on ‘Love is a losing game’, ‘is a fate resigned / Over futile odds / And laughed at by the gods’. I wonder: had she been offered the choice – like Achilles at the gates of Troy – between living to a ripe old age without ever meeting her Blake Incarcerated, or transforming what ensued into a work of art that sizzled and burned, which will be played – like the records of Billie Holliday and Edith Piaf – to console girls not even born yet, who have fallen into a hopeless state, and feel desperate and ashamed of it… would she have chosen to do it all again? Or would she have preferred to pour out her gift, to a lone audience of one, a therapist sitting in a chair, at a rehabilitation centre? Don’t get me wrong, I wish she had never died, but had emerged from the blackness, to spend a lifetime plump and happy and singing the blues for fun. But if you offered me that choice, between contributing something great or living until I’m 80, I’d have been lying in a grave for the last four years with a very good grace.
It’s not that Kapadia is incapable of telling a story like this. In Senna, he took a man I’d never heard of, who was vital to a sport I couldn’t care less about, and made me feel like I was personally undergoing a bereavement just watching him drive so recklessly you knew he’d crash and die. Kapadia took a totally pointless activity – racing round and round a track as fast as possible – and made it seem like the way Senna understood it: as noble and integral to the human race. Part of the sadness, the cathartic experience, of watching Senna was that you knew just by looking at him that if Ayrton Senna had been given the chance to live again, he would have spent all his time figuring out how to drive even faster.
But Amy is so focused on laying bare the agonies of drug addiction that it doesn’t bother explaining that the demons which ate her up also made her great. There are millions of drug addicts alive today who you could make this sort of film about – you don’t have to be winning Grammy awards, packing out stadiums, or having 10,000 flashbulbs going off in your face for this to happen to you. And Kapadia never pauses to wonder whether Mitch Winehouse, and everyone else close to her, didn’t step in to ‘save’ her because her death was an unfortunate accident. Debbie Harry turned 70 last week, having spent years frying her innards in heroin with Blondie’s Chris Stein. Marianne Faithfull, whose voice only seems to improve with cigarettes, had drug problems so terrible she unravelled into homelessness, with no one caring for her at all. In the early scenes of Amy, Winehouse is portrayed as ballsy and headstrong. Watching her face crinkle with disgust as an interviewer compares her to Dido, or hearing her describe how she ‘hates’ the man who put ‘fake strings’ on her debut album Frank, you can’t imagine her doing anything she didn’t want to. She is arrogant, in the very best sense, full of cleverness and cutting wit.
It also seems a bit much for Kapadia to shovel blame on to everyone – from her fans upwards – for exploiting Winehouse, when he is making a film that does exactly that. For we are treated to exhaustive images of her harrowed, emaciated face, without ever revisiting her most blistering performances, or letting us hear – in decent dollops – that voice of hers, so rich I could sit here all year and still fail to describe it. It doesn’t suggest how she put together that unique image: of a chanteuse in cinched-in skirts, with tattooed arms and ‘Blake’s’ hoisted boobs, eyes triple the size of any other girl’s, with great dark swoops of eyeliner, and that neverending mass of backcombed hair, which wobbled slightly as she sang, like a towering black jelly. It does not dwell on that mouth, those teeth, as they devour one microphone after another. Halfway through, her voice melts to nothing – it’s like making a film about Paul Gascoigne and leaving out the goals.
Whether we live for two-and-a-half decades or the full 10, we are none of us on this Earth for very long, and this film cannot convince me that Winehouse didn’t make better use of her time than most. The songs she wrote mean something to girls in a way that Rihanna’s latest riff – on being defrauded by her accountant – never will. So I hope Mitch Winehouse makes good his threat and starts work on his own documentary. For I was in love like she was, once, and ‘Wake up alone’ is what captures it. ‘Love is a losing game’ is a poem at its simplest and most beautiful. There is a truth to her that most stars lack. Reading her lines over, I can’t think even Blake Incarcerated can have been quite the devil he is painted here, since he proved so useful as a muse.
Throughout, Amy plays various voicemails Winehouse left, to those she loved who did not pick up the phone. In one she declares: ‘It’s your favourite Jewish girl, apart from your mum… The burning love I have for you will not be dampened… I don’t care if you never answer the phone. I will love you until the day my heart fails and I fall down dead in the road.’ Yes, there is a recklessness to that, which could have been carefully plucked out of her, with prescription drugs and talking therapy. But to take all that love and pour it into Back To Black... is there not something brave in that, and at least a little bit wonderful? Everything that happened to Amy afterwards was bad and brutal and awful, but that act of defiant love and creation – the ability to make something good from something bad – represents, to me, the greatest triumph of the human spirit I’ve found outside of books. Not a waste or a shame, or life at its most bathetic; a life truly lived.
Emily Hill is a writer based in London. Visit her website here.
Picture by: Simone Joyner/Getty
For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.