The young Amy Winehouse is immediately recognisable from the home videos woven into the recent BBC Two documentary Reclaiming Amy. Winehouse was a happy child, her mum Janis insists over grainy images. The footage of a lively smiling toddler, or a teen with a paper cocktail umbrella in her hair, or the 14-year-old performing a vivacious rendition of “Happy Birthday”, Marilyn Monroe-style, to her friend all seem to confirm this. We watch a video of Winehouse on stage at school as a charismatic Rizzo from Grease. This shows a more intimate part of the singer’s life, and her playfulness is engaging and familiar. Yet it is a sombre experience watching a young Winehouse while knowing the struggles with addiction, mental health and the tabloid press that will follow.
Last month (23 July) was the ten-year anniversary of Amy Winehouse’s death, and the singer’s family and friends have marked this by releasing documentaries about her life. As well as Reclaiming Amy, there is MTV UK’s Amy Winehouse and Me: Dionne’s Story, in which Winehouse’s goddaughter, Dionne Bromfield, who is also a musician, explores her relationship with the singer and what it means to experience grief in the public eye.
Reclaiming Amy is narrated centrally by Janis, and follows her, Winehouse’s father Mitch and Winehouse’s friends as they retell their most treasured and most painful memories from her life. They bring out items from her life all kept in the “Amy room” – shoes and clothes they haven’t thrown away, each one reminding them of a particular moment. There is a frustration in this film that the singer is solely remembered for a tumultuous relationship and struggles with addiction. In an effort to shift public perception, her friends and family counteract our suppositions about Winehouse’s life with memories of joy and laughter.
But no individual family member, nor any film-maker, can package her up and make her understandable to the public. Celebrity documentaries rarely recognise this problem, but with its range of narrative voices and emotional recollections, it is something Reclaiming Amy is distinctly aware of. These films often promise intimacy with their subject, but it is a questionable and at times inauthentic intimacy. How far can documentaries accurately reflect a person, especially if they are not involved in the making of the film itself? It is a question that has risen once again in the objections to Roadrunner, a film about the life and career of the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who died, seemingly by his own hand, in 2018. Director Morgan Neville’s decision to have an AI copy of Bourdain’s voice read out lines from the script has been criticised, particularly by Bourdain’s wife, who stated on Twitter that she did not authorise the choice to reconstruct her late husband’s voice. The film has received positive reviews in the US but is yet to be released in the UK. But it will inevitably prompt us to consider how authentic its depiction of Bourdain is.
Wen telling the story of a dead celebrity especially, it is easy for documentaries to become trapped by the narrative of the tragic and misunderstood creative, as was the case with What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015) and McQueen (2018). Nina Simone, Alexander McQueen, Bourdain and Winehouse all experienced significant mental health issues that shaped their lives. But how do you narrate someone’s struggles and pain? How can you condense the wholeness of a person’s life into a two-hour feature film?
Reclaiming Amy acts as a response to the Academy Award-winning Amy (2015), directed by Asif Kapadia. On release the film was critically acclaimed, but it distinctly portrays her as the tragic and tortured pop star, ultimately doomed to failure in her battle with celebrity culture. Amy forces our gaze onto Winehouse’s addiction and turbulent relationship. There are stills of her blood-spotted ballet pumps as she emerges from a hotel with husband Blake Fielder-Civil, a dazed look in her eyes as cameras flash relentlessly. The documentary brought further pain for Winehouse’s parents, who were accused of failing their daughter and being complicit in her death. Her father, Mitch, addresses this in Reclaiming Amy, saying that the idea that he forced her to perform when she was unwell is false. There were, he says, many times he told his daughter not to perform, but any attempts to persuade her against her own wishes were futile. Both Janis and Mitchell are keen to relate their attempts to help Amy overcome her addiction behind closed doors. They were simply two people ill-prepared to combat the consequences of their adult daughter’s life of instant fame and constant attention.
One of Reclaiming Amy’s main strengths is that it acknowledges that it can only show a fraction of the person Winehouse was. There are some things even her family members know they can never have full knowledge of, and as a result they speak only briefly about her relationship with Blake. He was “charm personified”, Mitchell acknowledges, however “the proof of the pudding was in the eating”. It’s all he can say. It is clearly still a painful subject for Winehouse’s loved ones, and there is a particular strength in the decision not to lay blame for her death at the feet of any individual.
Reclaiming Amy’s biggest achievement is to break down the mythologising tendencies of the tribute film genre. Memories, both joyful and painful, are the focus in this film, and the portrait of Winehouse that emerges is based on what she meant to those around her. It is an emotional and difficult film to watch but, as a group of people assert the value of their own memories, it is also defiant.