Cannes: The Complicated New Amy Winehouse Doc

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Amy Winehouse Photo: Courtesy of Universal Music

Walking out of yesterday’s screening of Amy, a documentary about the life and music of Amy Winehouse, someone asked me what I thought and I had to pause to keep from crying before I could speak. Stitched together from a wealth of unseen home videos and some 100 interviews, the film, by acclaimed director Asif Kapadia (2010’s Senna), is an intimate and deeply sad portrait made even sadder by the life, humor, and music that courses through the charming woman at its center. 

Most of the audience already knows how Amy ends, with Winehouse’s tragic death due to complications from drug and alcohol abuse in 2011 at the age of 27. Some of us had watched her rise, and her self-destruction, and through her music and her candid interviews thought we knew her enough to have an opinion about her use of hard drugs, and her turbulent relationship with husband Blake Fielder-Civil, and her fallow creative years leading up to her death. The film seems to be saying that Winehouse could have used more compassion, rather than adoration or opinions.

Winehouse’s father, Mitch, a former London cabbie, and the rest of her family have distanced themselves from the film, which was commissioned by Winehouse’s record label, Universal, and for which Mitch and Fielder-Civil both were active participants. Upon seeing it, Mitch told The Guardian, “I told them that they were a disgrace. I said: ‘You should be ashamed of yourselves. You had the opportunity to make a wonderful film and you’ve made this.’” Kapadia has responded: "It wasn't the intention to upset anyone but just to show what was going on in her life. There was a lot of turmoil; there was a lot of stuff going on in her life — that's why things turned out the way they did." 

I can see why Mitch would be upset; he does not come off well. The film clearly lays out the good guys and bad guys, with Mitch, Blake, and Amy’s manager-promoter Raye Cosbert portrayed as enablers who worked against her interests, or at least didn’t adequately protect her. Her bodyguards; her childhood friends from London’s working-class Southgate, Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert; and her first manager, Nick Shymansky, who encouraged her to turn her poetry into music when he was 19 and she was 16, come off as acting out of pure love, though even they were powerless to save her. 

Was Mitch a bad guy? It’s obviously more complicated than that. Amy loved him, and he’s the one who introduced her to the music of her eventual idols like Tony Bennett. We first hear about her “family issues” in the wake of her joy at moving out of the house when she signed her first record contract to make 2003’s Frank. Her mother, Janis, explains that the young Amy thought Janis was being too soft on her. (All interviews were recorded in a darkened sound studio and play over the home videos; no talking heads.) Mitch, by his own admission, started having an affair with another woman when Amy was 18 months old, but didn’t leave until she was 9; instead, he’d stay away from home, claiming he was working. “My dad was never there at night when we were being shits,” says Amy in a voice-over. Soon after her parents’ divorce, she started acting out, getting tattoos and having sleepovers with boyfriends. By 13 she was on antidepressants. In one of his interviews, Blake, who met Amy at a Camden nightclub and started a torrid relationship with her while he had a girlfriend and she had a boyfriend, says he once asked her why she was so promiscuous and treated sex like a man. He says she told him that her dad made her that way. (She also has said she was never abused.)

Her family’s love for Amy is never in question, but their neglect repeatedly comes to the foreground. Her first manager, Shymansky, details the time in 2005 when she fell over drunk and injured herself, and her friends entered her flat to see blood on the walls from her punching them. “Her parents didn’t want to take it on when she needed help,” he says. He tried to take her to rehab, but Amy said she’d only go if Mitch said she should. Mitch said she didn’t need to go to rehab. (Then she wrote about the whole thing in “Rehab”: “They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said, 'No, no, no.'”) Mitch says now that he refused permission because Amy wasn’t drinking every day — she’d just binge sometimes — and that he thought she was just being a kid. Shymansky sees this as a lost treatment opportunity. “We would have had a chance to get to her before the world wanted a piece of her.”

The Mitch we see in the film has eerie parallels to Lindsay Lohan’s and Britney Spears’s fathers — a man who was unprepared to handle his daughter’s drug addiction and averse reaction to fame, but reveled in the attention, and perhaps money, that came from it. His arguments that he cared for nothing but protecting his daughter are undercut by the fact that, after having been abandoning to her in childhood, he only seems to have become deeply involved in her life after she became famous. There’s also a horrifying scene in Amy in which he comes to visit his markedly more healthy and happy daughter during a post-rehab stint in Saint Lucia, with a camera crew in tow for a U.K. TV documentary called My Daughter Amy. (Amy snaps at at him on camera about it and later slammed him on Twitter.)  

No one gets off easily, though. Amy’s disastrous “comeback” tour, in which she barely made it onstage, and when she did, could hardly sing or stand, seems to have been the work of a manager, Cosbert, who didn’t have her best interests in mind. In a particularly damning sequence, Kapadia plays an interview with Cosbert saying that the tour was Amy’s choice, followed by three people who say she was taken to the airport while she was passed out, unaware of what her team had contractually obliged her to do.

Clips of talk-show hosts jabbering on about her health are spliced with comedians taking jabs at her drug use. (It’s particularly cutting to see Jay Leno, who’d once welcomed her to his show, making a cruel joke about her addiction in later years.) Moments of heartbreaking intimacy during this time period come by way of Blake’s photos of their drug paraphernalia, or Amy’s own startlingly gaunt webcam selfies in 2008. There is even a flash of hope in unseen footage of Amy, having cleaned up by order from her record company, learning she’s won the Grammy for Record of the Year, followed by Juliette’s recollection of Amy pulling her aside to tell her “This is so boring without drugs.” 

The film raises the question of whether this vulnerable woman would have been hounded by the paparazzi so much if we, the public, weren't hungry to witness her destruction. It’s here where Kapadia starts to enter murky moral territory, as the film relies more and more on paparazzi footage of Winehouse, in lieu of home videos, which seem to have dried up in the swell of her fame. Asked at a cocktail party before the film’s premiere if the movie had paid for that paparazzi footage, Kapadia said, “I didn’t handle that sort of stuff,” but he considers the footage to be essential and part of the public record. “In the end,” he says, “I felt like I had to tell the story and if you kind of get a bit didactic and say, ‘I’m not gonna use this, I’m not gonna use that,’ then you can’t tell the story. So I was like, ‘I’m gonna talk to everyone, I’m gonna use whatever I can to look at the big picture,’ so we used whatever we needed to tell the story. And a lot of her life, at a certain point, you only knew about what was going on through that kind of representation and it was important to use it because that showed what was going on. Nobody else was filming it.”

Maybe we are all complicit: The public, the media, her management, her family, her friends — whose methods of tough love ultimately didn’t work. But maybe also assigning blame doesn’t matter in the face of this kind of loss — the loss of that voice, that songwriter, that sweet girl with her uncontrollable demons, and, yes, that daughter.