Mawkish tabloid fare: how the Amy Winehouse film fails

This film laments the way Winehouse's life was intruded upon while relying on the same methods to create drama.

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Amy (15)
dir: Asif Kapadia

Love & Mercy (12A)
dir: Bill Pohlad

I lived near Amy Winehouse and, the night after she died in July 2011, I went over to the house to have a look. The upper windows were covered in metal shutters and a lone policeman stood out front; a trickle of young Camden Italians wearing spiky backpacks were arriving to start a vigil. Otherwise, there was “nothing to see here”. A father carrying a small boy started to turn away and the boy objected: “No, Dad, I want to watch.” It was a strange thing to say but watching was what you did with Amy Winehouse.

Three years earlier, I had stood in the crowd at Glastonbury Festival and looked on as she slurred and teetered, an indecipherable parody of what she had been. The audience was gripped but hard faced. At these catastrophic performances, people disguised their discomfort with irritation or made sardonic jokes. They came so that they would have something to tell their grandchildren.

After she died, I waited for the intelligent books, the box sets, the career retrospectives, the tribute album, the tribute concert – but there was very little. The Winehouse story suddenly felt cheap and nasty. Already a legend while she was alive, in death she was suddenly out of date, frozen in an unappealing period of recent history recalled in a montage of sailor tats, trilbies, Babyshambles and Blake.

Winehouse was responsible for the soul revival that is still the dominant attitude in modern UK pop. She pioneered an expectation in performance that now fuels the TV talent shows – that your music is your life, turned inside out and on display – and she refocused the ear on singing. She was the figurehead of a new wave of female megastars. She was all these things without knowing, or trying, or caring, and like all trailblazers she was nothing like those who came in her wake. She is still artistically the most influential British pop star of the 21st century. An intelligent look at her was well overdue.

Asif Kapadia’s Amy starts off hopefully enough, with a hair-raising video in which a teenage Winehouse performs “Happy Birthday” on the stairs, overpowering her friends and inhaling the camera. There are early interviews in which she namechecks influences no teenager should know: Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Thelonious Monk. And there are the rambunctious and surreal ramblings of a self-conscious but totally free spirit. Lounging next to an older, cooler boyfriend, she asks, “Do you think you could eat 50 eggs?”

Amy handles lyrics well, too, etched in her handwriting across the screen:

I couldn’t resist him

His eyes were like yours

His hair was exactly the shade of brown

He’s just not as tall, but I couldn’t tell

It was dark and I was lying down

(“I Heard Love Is Blind”)

It’s important to remember that years before her collaboration with Mark Ronson, Winehouse was pulling these sparkling musical epigrams out of the air, so physically wrapped up in each performance that she always looked as though she was writing the song on the spot. “She had one of the purest relationships to music I had ever seen,” says her piano player. Tony Bennett explains why she hated big gigs: “Jazz artists don’t want to be playing the same song every night for 50,000 people.” “If you’re that good at 18, what are you going to be like at 25?” says someone else, ominously.

In a bizarre innovation, Amy uses only vocal interviews with its contributors, set over amateur video footage and increasingly lingering, slow-motion shots of its star in various states of health. The effect is nothing if not dramatic. Reduced to a tremulous, disembodied voice, her mother sounds astonishingly hopeless: “When she was 15, she told me, ‘Mum, I’ve got this great diet. I eat what I want and then I bring it up again.’ I really thought it was a phase.” The unseen Blake Fielder-Civil, Winehouse’s bruiser Svengali ex-husband, is a throaty, metallic, Gollum-like whisper: “I was cutting my wrists at nine . . . Amy always said we were like twins . . .”

Everyone knows Blake was a wrong’un.  He hijacked her story in her lifetime and now he gets three-quarters of her biopic. Would it have been more powerful to make him a chapter in the story – which, in reality, he was? He got her on heroin; after she OD’d, according to this film, he smuggled more into the hotel room in which she was recuperating. We watch murky home video from another attempt at rehab in which he goads her repeatedly to sing for the camera.

Then there’s the father. Oh, the father! She got herself over to St Lucia to clean up and he followed her there with a camera crew for a fly-on-the-wall documentary. We see Mitch chastising his daughter; hear how she worshipped him and needed strong men. I didn’t know he stopped her from going to rehab at one point; I always thought that line in “Rehab” – “I ain’t got the time/And if my daddy thinks I’m fine” – was just Winehouse wit. My enjoyment of the song isn’t enhanced by a reminder of how grotesquely close to the bone it was.

Amy teaches you two things: that Winehouse was in trouble long before you thought she was and that the people around her were even worse than you remember. It is mawkish tabloid fare that laments the way her life was intruded upon while relying on the same methods to create its drama. Kapadia had the chance to pull her out of dingy, recent red-top history and make her timeless again and on this count he failed. I wish he’d just gone the whole hog and dramatised it, filmed it in Hollywood, maybe with Keith Chegwin as Blake.

Dramatised music biopics are hard to get right. They often feature amusing exposition and strange dialogue in which people talk in song lyrics (the Val Kilmer movie The Doors: “Jim . . . What are you going to do when the music’s over?”). In Love & Mercy, the Beach Boys say to one another, “Have you heard Rubber Soul? We can’t let the Beatles get ahead of us, man!” Later, the session drummer Hal Blaine says to Brian Wilson, “Phil Spector’s got nothing on you!”

Something that the film gets right is the near-impossible task of showing a songwriter writing music on-screen. The director had a gift, to be fair, because Wilson’s “teenage symphonies to God” drove him crazy and his craziness is the focus of the film. A cacophony of bullhorns and heavenly voices works extremely well in the cinema – especially when set against the wonderful face of Paul Dano as the young Brian, his eyes closed in ecstasy, broad cheeks hanging in an expression of permanent wonder, whether he’s writing counterpoint or taking acid. “Just let me stay home and I’ll have some great stuff for you when you get back,” he pleads when the boys go on tour, a dopey genius, domesticated, delightful and on the verge of damage. You just want to rub his tummy.

It’s less easy to believe John Cusack tickling the ivories as an older Brian but that doesn’t matter, as his screen time focuses on Wilson’s relationship with Eugene Landy, the manager-minder-producer-shrink who kept him in a kind of psychological captivity in the 1980s with an inaccurate diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and a tonne of drugs. Cusack walks on the balls of his feet like a strange child, his palms at right angles to his body. He is a picture of emotional and physiological damage but  flashes of energy reveal a connection to normality, like an electrical circuit that keeps breaking.

Cusack makes the Wilson we know now make sense. When the real thing appears, performing over the credits with his stiff, marionette movements, he looks almost normal. By focusing on the Landy episode but showing it as just that – an episode – the film turns the story of damaged old Brian into a tale of redemption. It reminded me of something Tony Bennett said, when asked what advice he’d give Amy Winehouse if he could go back in time: “I’d say, slow down, you’re too important. Life teaches you how to live it if you live it long enough.” 

***

Now listen to Kate discussing Amy Winehouse on our new pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

 

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's features editor. 

This article appears in the 01 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Crisis Europe

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