Photo and words by G.
When I first ‘discovered’ the music of Amy Winehouse in 2007, it was love at first listen. I hadn’t discovered her music in time to see her perform in the extremely intimate New York venues Joe’s Pub and Bowery Ballroom, but luckily for me, she came back around a 3rd time to play the recently (at the time) opened Highline Ballroom, which is a 15 minute walk from where I live (bonus!). My friend April made me a deal – she would get the tickets if I secured us a spot in line. Done. As luck would have it, when I turned up to the venue to get in line, Amy Winehouse had just finished sound-checking and was exiting the venue at the very moment I arrived. Amy couldn’t have been a lovelier person and she was so happy to see that I had her first album “Frank” which I asked her to autograph for me, because at the time, it was only available as an import in the US. It was a week before she’d be married, and she was healthy and very happy. It was the ultimate Amy Winehouse experience because I got to talk to her, her soon to be husband Blake Civil Fielder took our picture together, she autographed both of my CDs, and I was able to secure a front row center spot to see her perform and as she exited the stage for the last time that night, she handed me the set list! At the time, I had a pretty shitty camera, but April had a good camera, luckily, and her amazing shots of the concert can be seen here, and I highly recommend you check them out at this link which will open in a new window. The concert which was supposed to be the beginning of her rise to stardom US, turned out to be her final trip to New York. When I would tell people about my experience, they found it hard to believe, because shortly after this concert, her life became a tabloid-ridden mess. I would hear these stories and see these tabloid pictures and every time, a piece of my heart would break because the person I was reading about in the news was not this lovely lady that I had met. As soon as you’d hear that she was doing ok, she was back in the news again for something dubious and this downward spiral continued for the rest of her short life.
Filmmaker Asif Kapadia decided to make some sense out of this tragedy and he made the exquisitely beautiful, but monumentally sad documentary “Amy,” which is in theaters today. Like with the Kurt Cobain documentary “Montage of Heck,” what you thought you knew about these famous rock stars is only a sliver of what really happened and both films bring these huge talents back to life, even if only for a few hours.
“Amy” shows that from a very young age, Amy Winehouse had the gift of song and possessed one of the most unique voices to ever grace the stage. Intimate footage shows her singing her earliest gigs, auditioning for a record label and despite having a powerful voice, she was just a shy Jewish girl from the UK. Though she had a wicked sense of humor, she was very fragile and after her parents divorced early on in her life, she seemingly never recovered fully from it.
She never saw herself as a star and she didn’t even think her music was accessible to a wide audience. She was just a girl with some songs. She started to gain a following in the UK, winning some awards and it was at this point, you realize she never had a chance at survival. Her manager was a promoter, her father, whom Amy worshiped, had dollar signs in his eyes, and she met Blake Civil Fielder, a man that was poison to her life. The tempestuous relationship with Blake was a “can’t live with or without” him situation for the rest of her days.
Already known to be able to drink people under the table, Blake introduced her to heroin and crack cocaine and her life became a yo-yo of getting clean and falling off the wagon. The pair broke up and Amy channeled her pain into the songs that would make up her classic album “Back to Black.” “Amy” features fantastic studio footage of her laying down the vocal for the song along with producer Mark Ronson and after Amy delivers the song, it shows her stunned by how sad the song turned out.
“Back to Black” was recorded and the album sounded like a throwback to the girl group sound of the 1950s, but with a voice so unique and with modern lyrics about destruction and getting your heart broken that people of every generation related to it. One of her final chances at survival came before the release of this album as an intervention was staged to take her to rehab, but it was decided by the people around her that the album should go forward instead. Though she was involved with shady characters, it’s easy to point the finger knowing what we know now, and the good thing about this film is that it doesn’t point fingers. Everyone involved in her life was to blame to some extent (aside from her childhood friends) and it is abundantly clear when you watch this film.
The song that put her on the map, “Rehab,” would also be the beginning of her demise as the global hit turned her into fodder for the paparazzi to follow Amy everywhere she went. The ample footage of her being swarmed by paparazzi is disgusting and you wonder why laws haven’t been created to prevent paparazzi from being able to stalk a person at their place of residence. She reconciled with Blake, did a quick tour of the US (see opening paragraph) and they got married. The honeymoon did not last long as Amy was torn between a tempestuous relationship, non-stop partying and contractual singing obligations.
Her husband got arrested and jailed and once again, Amy’s chance of turning her life around all but vanished. She’d get clean for a brief period of time and then go back to drugs and drinking. There is heart wrenching footage of her accepting a Grammy award live via satellite in London and she pretty much freaks out that Tony Bennett, one of her idols, is the man presenting the award. Despite how messed up she was, she was so happy to be recognized for her accomplishment and it is possibly one of the final moments in her life when she was happy. She confided to a friend that without drugs and drinking, life didn’t have much meaning for her and the downward spiral began to escalate at this point.
She took 6 months off to go to a rehab facility in St. Lucia and she was met by her father, who turned up with a reality TV crew! Disgusting. There is footage of some fans wanting to take a picture with Amy and on camera, her father yells at her. Amy obliges the photo and she tells her father not to make a fool of her both on camera and in front of her fans. It’s just another example of how this fragile person had the wrong people in her inner circle.
This is when the movie becomes really depressing as her life is just a series of getting clean, falling off the wagon, getting chased by the paparazzi and being a mess in public appearances. Perhaps to spare us all of the gory details, footage of her smoking crack, that at the time leaked onto the internet, with the lead singer of Baby Shambles was not shown, nor was her seemingly random desire to get breast implants. Even the footage of her final full length concert in Serbia didn’t show the full extent of how bad off she was as they focused on her being too messed up to sing, but if you search the internet, you can see how sad it was when she actually did sing at that show. What does make it into the film; however, is the audio of a conversation she has where she says that if she could give her voice back in exchange for not being hassled when she goes out in public, she would. Too sad for words.
In her final studio appearance, she sang at Abbey Road Studios with her idol, Tony Bennett, as he was recording a duets album. You see how nervous she was and after not being pleased with her vocal take, she apologizes to Tony Bennett for wasting his time. Bennett, ever the gentleman, is not mad and in fact he encourages Amy and tells her that they will get the perfect take and not to worry about it. You wish his presence in her life would have shown up sooner, but alas, it was not meant to be.
After calls to her childhood friends, in which they described hearing the voice on the phone of the Amy they knew and loved, where she really sounded serious about turning her life around, a typical day in the life of Amy Winehouse where she drank from morning to night found her with 4 times the legal limit of alcohol in her system and it caused her heart to stop and she died in her sleep at the age of 27.
You will be angered by the tragedy of what could have been if only she’d gotten clean. You will be angered by all the poisonous people in her inner circle. You will be angered when you see what the vicious paparazzi can do to a fragile person. On the other side of the coin, you will be thankful that although the world will never have any more new music from Amy Winehouse, we have the masterpiece “Back to Black,” and the memory of one of the best voices of all time, preserved in this beautiful portrait of a beautifully tragic girl. Rest in peace, Amy.