The Ache Of Losing Amy Winehouse All Over Again

Photo: Matt Baron/BEImages.
When you see the new documentary Amy — and you should, if only to bask for a while in the singer’s velvet voice and once startlingly youthful vitality — just know that you’ll have to take the rest of the afternoon off to give in to the ache of losing her. Amy Winehouse died in 2011 at the ridiculously young age of 27 from alcohol poisoning. Her death followed several bad years of drug and love addictions. She was a wreck and a wonder, and at times I felt flooded with a toxic voyeuristic guilt while watching director Asif Kapadia’s elegant collage of her performances, paparazzi encounters, personal home videos, and voice mails that all form the arc of tragedy.

Kapadia, who helmed a stirring portrait of the racecar driver Aryton Senna in 2010’s Senna, knows how to twist the knife. His Amy in the first half of the movie, and for heartbreakingly hopeful stretches in the second, is a raw delight: funny, sharp, unpretentious, adorable, and yes, a genius with the pen and her prodigious pipes. But it’s true too that the movie gets you dizzy with the kaleidoscope of her demise, pulse as it does with camera-flash visuals of her blood-spattered ballet slippers, those razor hipbones jutting out of toddler-sized jean shorts, and ugly scenes of her scratching and hitting herself (presumably, a side effect of crack) while performing or being interviewed.

Who’s at fault for Amy Winehouse’s death? In Amy, there are certainly damning examples of her being done wrong by her inner circle. There’s her sweet and perhaps dim mum, who admits to wholly brushing off her daughter’s confession of longtime bulimia. There’s ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, who admits in the film to introducing Winehouse to hard drugs, and has been suspected of smuggling them to her while she was in rehab. (There’s a special place in hell for this wretch, who cajoles her to sing the chorus from “Rehab” for his camera while at actual rehab.) There’s a manager who refuses to cancel Winehouse’s concert dates, despite her heroin addiction, telling her panicked girlfriends “there are lots of professionals, lawyers and doctors and all sorts of people who function on this stuff.” And then there’s her dad Mitch, whom Winehouse clearly adored, who crashed her six-month respite from drugs and fame in St. Lucia with a camera crew for his nauseatingly titled TV project, My Daughter Amy. Since Amy’s premiere at Cannes in May, Mitch Winehouse has been in the press complaining that the movie is trying to ruin him. But what kind of parent has any self left to ruin after losing a child?

Amy Winehouse was surrounded by some saints as well: her childhood girlfriends Juliette and Lauren, who describe in trembling, horrified voices how they stole her passport to keep the singer from going back out on the road; her devoted bodyguard, who would try to physically restrain her from heading down to the bars at night; her friend and early manager, Nicky, whose attempts to send his client to rehab were rejected by her father. (A rejection that would inspire a doomed line from her soul-crushing hit: “I ain’t got the time, and if my Daddy thinks I’m fine…”)

The gallant prince of Amy is Tony Bennett. There’s a moment during a recording session with the jazz great when Winehouse balks at her performance as they sing “Body and Soul.” It's a lovely duet, but she’s displeased with herself and refuses to waste her idol’s time with imperfection. He speaks to her like a gentleman and a peer, bringing her kindly back around with crooning words of encouragement, not because he wanted a piece of her, but rather so she might tap into that buried piece of herself that found joy in breath and verse.

In that last chapter, Winehouse had plans to live an authentic musical life, to escape the rigors of regurgitating Back to Black hits to stadium audiences. She is giddy when talking about the possible collaboration with true friends and fellow jazz lovers Mos Def and Questlove. It hurts to imagine what might have been.

Early on in the film, on the precipice of a noxious fame that would revel in her undoing, an interviewer asks Winehouse how she might handle the demands of a public life. “The more people see of me, they’ll realize that all I’m good for is making music,” she says with a cheeky, unapologetic grin. She had the gift of song, and perhaps it’s important not to deny such unearthly talent. But oh, what if she’d been able to practice the art of living?

“Life teaches you how to live it if you can live long enough,” says Bennett, mourning the loss of a woman who couldn’t hold on for another day.
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