I heard the news of Amy Winehouse's death on July 23, 2011, while at an AA convention. The day became all the more poignant considering the setting. It brought home to everyone in the room, including myself, the stark reality that alcohol dependence is a real affliction that kills people.
Fast-forward to July 3. The documentary film Amy is released, giving everyone an intimate look at the singer’s inevitable demise. I had been eagerly anticipating the movie since I first caught wind of it a few months back. I’ve always loved strong female vocalists and Amy struck a particular chord for me, not only due to her talent but all the drama and ultimate tragedy that seemed to always surround her as well.
Something about it made me want to know more about her.
So I made arrangements to see the movie with a friend I met at a treatment center from my early days in recovery and prepared ourselves to be reminded of the pain that we both knew so well. On a bright, summer Sunday afternoon, we met outside the movie theater and proceeded into the darkness of the auditorium.
The movie doesn’t have a narrator or single authorial voice that threads the story together. Rather, it relies heavily on a combination of footage from various sources including home videos, media interviews and news articles. This may usually make a film difficult to follow but it wasn’t so in this case. The snippets create a clear timeline and progression from Amy's teenage years to her breakthrough as an artist with her debut studio album Frank to her later meteoric rise with the release of her critically-acclaimed second album Back to Black. As presumed, footage showing the later parts of the singer’s life is more sensational, messy and controversial. From what is presented, it is clear that director Asif Kapadia wants the audience to believe that Amy could have been rescued. It was the people around her, most notably the men in her life—her father, ex-husband and manager—who led her down the path of destruction. Amy died from alcohol toxicity at just 27 years of age.
At this point you may be asking yourself: was her death really inevitable? There have been other figures in popular culture who were taken at a young age. Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain, to name a few. In hindsight, we tell ourselves that their demise could have been predicted as they were vulnerable, sensitive souls, artists, poets and misfits who wore their hearts on their sleeves. They spoke of pain and suffering and actually lived it out, not just in their art but also in their private lives. But what do we, the public, actually do about it? We stand on and watch the media circus close in on these tortured individuals, even while we see them expressing the same desolation that we ourselves have felt in our darkest moments—lonely, lost and alone. These figures express what we repress and, astonishingly, we let them.
Though Amy was a sensitive young woman who felt and expressed her emotions at a higher, more intense level than the average person, one cannot help but think that if she had more responsible people around her that she might have made it to the other side of her self-destruction. If anyone in her closest circle could have taken the initiative and allowed Amy some breathing space from the relentless work, she may have come through intact. With such a rare and prodigious talent, she would have been even more of a gift to the world as a more rounded, more mature human being.
Towards the end of the film, we get a glimpse of the vulnerable person outside of the limelight. Amy and her then-husband Blake Fielder-Civil are in their joint rehab bedroom as he is filming her and sneering at the fact that they’re there together. Amy, however, in a small, desperate voice responds, “Actually, I don't mind it in here.” This, we are led to believe, is the real Amy: a girl who wanted to overcome her struggles but was prevented by the forces of fame, celebrity and other people’s greed.
Whether or not Amy sought out to do so, many people will come away from the film blaming the singer’s parents, Blake or any of the numerous others who could have helped her. There is a sense in which they do have culpability, at least in the fact that they could have pushed for Amy to have more time to work on her recovery. However, Amy was an adult and, as anyone in recovery knows, was responsible for her own choices. Sure she was a bit more vulnerable being afflicted with both bulimia and alcohol dependence but, given enough time and space, she might have very well recovered.
By the end of the film, I was moved to tears, as much for Amy as for myself. I saw how it was a miracle that I survived my own alcohol dependence at the age of 42 (the same age at which my sister died of alcohol-related complications) and, as I wiped my eyes and walked back out into the daylight, how tragic it was that we all watched one of the brightest lights of our time fade into black.