Monday, 6 July 2015

Amy: Watch a Sweet Thing Die

Off to the cinema to see Amy, a new documentary about Amy Winehouse. Her weeks beat our years. She was born in 1983 and died only yesterday. It seems only yesterday. The film keeps saying 2005, 2007, 2008.

It’s disconcerting. I can remember 2008. What did I do in 2008? Probably more than Amy Winehouse, to be honest; she spent that year taking crack cocaine and eating crisps. It’s difficult to write about Amy Winehouse without coming across as flippant. For a long time she was a figure of fun, everybody’s favourite washed-up junkie. Throughout 2009, 2010 etc there were probably hundreds of people who had her Wikipedia page open in a separate tab, so they could be the first person to add her date of death. Amy is thus a punch in the gut, because it presents Amy Winehouse as a desperately nervous, sympathetic musician who was probably doomed from the start, bleeding out from a bullet that was born inside her.

The sad thing is that she died as a cartoon figure, and Britain is not generally a compassionate nation, and she operated in the context of jazzy retro pop, and it's hard to mythologise someone with a thick Cockney accent, so whereas Billie Holiday and Ian Curtis and Nick Drake have a romantic legend, Amy Winehouse will just slowly fade away. Perhaps then she will be happy, because nobody will want a piece of her any more.

Amy Winehouse grew up in a musical environment. Her parents sent her off to a variety of performing arts schools, and she learned enough about chords and playing the guitar and living a life to write songs. The film skips over this a little, instead suggesting that she simply willed herself to become a musician. It begins when she is fourteen, belting out "Happy Birthday" to her gang of friends. They all stuck together for the rest of Amy's life, even as she fell apart. They narrate the rest of the film, the tale of a force that passed through their lives and then passed on.

The documentary has attracted some controversy for its allegedly negative portrayal of the Winehouse family. I'm torn. Her father flippantly brushes off a suggestion that his divorce might have upset Amy, but lots of people are divorced nowadays. He sabotages an early attempt to send her to rehab, but we don't learn why; and when she is finally sent to rehab it doesn't do any good, and yet she does occasionally get it together, but only when she puts her mind to it. The obvious, drastic solution would have been for someone to terminate her musical career post-Back to Black and force her to live a peaceful life off the royalties, but the film makes clear that she would have resisted. Besides, isn't this exactly what she did? For the last few years of her life music was not her main priority. Alas she was incapable of living in peace because there was a nuclear bomb going off in her heart.

Amy Winehouse's first album, Frank, was released in 2003. It attracted a bunch of good reviews but sold poorly. She released her second album, Back to Black, in 2006, and became a massive star. Even before the subsequent tour ran its course she had fallen apart. Her career flourished and withered in the gap between U2’s eleventh and twelfth studio albums. Her success took the British and then American record industry by surprise, and it took two years for other labels to respond with Adele and Duffy. Amy Winehouse also predated Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Florence and the Machine, Little Boots, Caro Emerald and the like. She was that old. She was the prototype of a new generation, and like most prototypes there were rough edges that were later smoothed out, unused blocks of code that were removed, exposed rivet heads.

Adele and Duffy essentially filled the gap left behind by Amy Winehouse, although I'm not suggesting that they are copies; Duffy only had half of a good record in her, but Adele is not Amy Winehouse. In another world the competition might have driven Amy Winehouse to come back with something great, but it was not to be. There was a long gap after Back to Back and her eventual death, five years later during which the media and Wikipedia's editors were simply waiting for her to die. A year of touring and winning awards and then two years of marriage, followed by two years spent trying and failing to get it together.

If Amy has a thesis it's that she had the strength to pull through, but she needed an incentive, a reason to try, something to believe in. One of the film's most affecting scenes is a studio sequence of Winehouse and Tony Bennett performing the old standard "Body and Soul" for a duets album. Amy starts off nervous and unhappy with her performance, but eventually she delivers a great take. She's obviously thrilled and overawed to be working with Bennett, who was one of her musical inspirations. On that day, unlike most other days, she had a good reason to get out of bed. It was one of the last recordings, and she was dead by the time the record came out.

Tony Bennett appears in one of the film's other highlights, when "Rehab" wins the 2008 Grammy for Best Song. He announces Amy's song as the winner, and Amy - on satellite, performing in a club in London - is astonished. She grabs for the microphone stand and misses. It's not an act. The clip is all over the internet; Amy shows the unedited satellite feed, which reveals that she was thrilled just to have her name read out by Tony Bennett during the nominations. If only she had spent more time with other musicians and less time with wasters.

Rock music history is full of artists who were exploited by uncaring managers and devious record executives, but Amy Winehouse seems to have got off lightly. In the studio she worked with some excellent, sympathetic producers, and had the strength and tenacity to push her own artistic vision, although it took time. A radio interview early in the film suggests that she wasn't happy with the production on Frank (she bemoans the presence of fake strings on single "Take the Box"*), and listening to it nowadays I can see her point. Her management and record company pushed her into concerts that she wasn't keen on, but this doesn't come across as especially mean given the huge gaps in her workload. If is to be believed, two-thirds of all the gigs she ever performed were in 2007, in support of Back to Black. Outside that year she mostly did festivals, one gig a month or so until the tap was shut off.

The documentary doesn't explain why she found it so hard to perform live, although there's a suggestion that she was a perfectionist who hated giving a sub-par performance - and every time she flaked out on stage she hated herself for letting everybody down, and so she drank heavily, which made her flake out on stage (and hate herself), thus creating a vicious circle. Putting on my amateur psychotherapist hat, I suspect a combination of her instant fame plus an environment where she was surrounded by top professionals meant that she never learned to deal with failure, never learned to deal with a bad gig or a night when she didn't feel it, but still had to perform.

* The video for "Take the Box" is pretty poor, obviously done on the cheap. My hunch is that she wasn't impressed. The video shows her strumming a guitar, although there doesn't appear to be a guitar on the record; perhaps the record company just wanted to demonstrate that she was multi-talented. In a live context Amy was an animated singer, moving her hands as if pleading with the microphone, whereas in the video she just stands there. As if she couldn't act out singing for the camera, she had to actually do it.

I totally missed Amy Winehouse when she was still active. Frank was sold as a trendy modern jazz album and initially it didn't reach the top ten, and none of the singles were hits. There were four singles from the album, all of which flopped. "Take the Box" reached #57 in the charts, and given that this was 2004 it must have sold only eighteen copies. It was nonetheless the highest-charting single from the album (her debut, "Stronger than Me", only reached #71). The record company must have had second thoughts about giving her a quarter-million-pound advance. Frank was nominated for a Mercury Prize, which turned me off even more. Listening to it nowadays, the production is a bit weak and generic, as if the record company wanted to sell her as a new hip hop diva. Her voice is surprisingly restrained, and if it was revealed in years to come that the tracks had been produced and written before Amy Winehouse was assigned to the project, I would not be surprised. "Help Yourself" is good. Overall Frank has none of the massive sound of Back to Black, but conversely it doesn't feel intimate, it feels a bit like shopping mall music with a more charismatic vocalist.

2003, 2004 were the years of Basement Jaxx and Daniel Bedingfield and Scissor Sisters. On a commercial level Frank was trounced by Dido's Life for Rent. I mention Dido because she is a kind of anti-Winehouse, a clean-living boring person who put absolutely none of her uninteresting life into her music, and of course Dido is still alive and very rich whereas Amy Winehouse is dead. Dido knew how to shield herself from the dragon's breath. Her music is still played on the radio. It's safe music, with the edges smoothed off, and it doesn't remind people of anything. In contrast Amy Winehouse doesn't get much airplay today. Her catchiest hit, "Rehab", is too close to the bone.

After watching Amy I can't imagine her coping well with age, with growing fat and losing her parents and gradually losing touch with her friends. The irony is that Amy was one of the few pop singers of her era who was generally interested in making music, rather than using music as a springboard to a career as a TV star, and she would probably have been happy singing jazz in clubs forever. One of the interviewees marvels that she had the voice of a much more mature person, and if she was so good at the age of eighteen she would have been fantastic later on in life, but we'll never know.


How will ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil cope with growing old? What does he do, anyway? Amy presents him in a surprisingly non-negative light at first, although his affected gravelly monotone does him no favours, and of course it is revealed that he hooked Amy on heroin, but I suspect she would have found heroin anyway, and ultimately it was drink that killed her. Fielder-Civil had his own demons. In another world we would feel sorry for him, except that he didn't write "You Know I'm No Good". Nonetheless he blows it spectacularly in an interview shot after the divorce, where he boasts about being a good-looking gym hunk who was just too good for Amy Winehouse and didn't need her any more. I could feel a collective scowl of disapproval in the cinema at that point. Amy Winehouse appears to have had beginner's luck with her first batch of girly-girl friends but no luck thereafter with anybody. Some reviews of the film say that she was badly let down by men, but it seems that women weren't helpful either - they avoided her totally - and there appear to have been no strong women in her life ever except for her nan, who died in the middle of Amy's career. Amy's other boyfriends come across as non-entities, which is at least better than coming off as a dick.

I felt a little bit sorry for one of her early flames, an older man who inspired "Stronger than Me". In archive footage he has a forlorn expression, as if he knows that he will be just a footnote. The lyrics of the song don't hold out much hope for their relationship ("you should be stronger than me / been here seven years longer than me / don't you know you're supposed to be the man?"). The film has a thing where the lyrics are put on the screen in time with the music,* and because her lyrics were drawn straight from her life the effect is a bit like watching a musical. Amy would work as a musical.

* I'm sure there was a mistake - in "You Know I'm No Good", Amy doesn't sing about Roger Moore being "ten men down", she says that he "tear[s] men down". Perhaps I read it wrong.

The film is almost entirely archive footage plus some new voiceovers. Amy wasn't quite a "millenial" but a tonne of her life was recorded with VHS and digital tape and digital cameras. It's odd to see jpeg compression in a historical documentary. There's a mixture of candid footage and studio recordings, with surprisingly almost no formal interviews. At the beginning Amy sounds like a great pal to hang out with, later on she is slurred and not all there. The film generally doesn't twist the knife; footage from the Belgrade concert stops before she starts singing.

I'll go on a digression here. Boring people on the Daily Mail's website often moan that female pop singers are presented as porn stars, but in my opinion pop music over the last fifteen years or so has been surprisingly conservative. Amy Winehouse was part of a loose wave of female pop singers - Joss Stone, Katie Melua, Dido, KT Tunstall etc - who were generally presented by their record companies as wholesome big sister types rather than sex bombs, or at least I have never thought of Joss Stone in a sexual way.  I point this out because I am a heterosexual man reviewing a documentary about a girl seven years my junior; I'm genetically programmed to ogle women's breasts / thighs / bottoms, and indeed I have a very long telephoto lens for just this purpose, but never once during Amy did I have the hots for her. I felt sorry for her. She seemed like a good but indiscriminate friend who would be a nightmare to spend time with. She really did love Blake Fielder-Civil, it's just that he was an arse. But if he hadn't been an arse, would she have loved him?

One of the film's theses is that she craved some kind of order or structure to her life, but kept bumping into people who wanted to use her for their own ends. The film makes it clear that she was a high-maintenance individual who got bored easily. But she was a kid, I was probably the same when I was her age. And she was a kid who was constantly exposed to an exciting life. It's a surprise that she doesn't come across as a complete dick; if I had spent my teenage years being told that I was a genius and then given piles of money, I would have turned into an awful little shit.

Amy Winehouse was a girl, and thus unknowable to me. They are different internally and have their own wants and desires. Girls like to dress up and look pretty and they cry at odd moments. It's hard for a man to be friends with a woman because you have to be friends with someone who likes dressing up and looking pretty, which is odd, and also it's difficult to be friends with a powerfully desirable sex object. It struck me that Amy Winehouse might have lived if she had eloped with Tony Bennett; she seemed to adore him, and hanging out with an older person might have grounded her. Tony Bennett is married, but perhaps the Bennetts could have adopted her, I dunno.

Amy had a classic mixture of outward bolshiness masking deep-seated insecurity, which in her case stemmed from a mixture of perfectionism and a fear of letting people down. On the occasions when she is forcefully told to clean up her act, she does so; the Belgrade appearance is unnerving precisely because she is told to clean up but doesn't bother trying. The fight had finally been knocked out of her. Time and again the people who cared for her turned out to be unable to help her. The manager who looks after her during the early part of her career admits that he was out of his depth, and although he comes across positively he is honest about his shortcomings; Amy's later manager is credibly tough but has a "not my problem, guv" attitude, as if Amy was just a client rather than a friend. Salaam Remi, one of her ace producers, is a nice guy but presumably had limited opportunity to guide her career (Mark Ronson, one of the other ace producers, is in the cast list but I can't remember him from the film). Mos Def, credited in the film as Yasiin Bey, adored her but presumably didn't have the time to help her out.

Her dad Mitch doesn't come across very well*, which I think is slightly unfair. On the positive side, Amy's family parents got her interested in music - her dad is a decent albeit powerfully ordinary jazz singer - and this never comes across in Amy, Mitch is either absent or hapless, and Amy's mother comes across as totally passive. A sequence in which Mitch interrupts Amy's holiday in St Lucia to film a documentary about her is nonetheless infuriating. He moans when she is sarcastic to some autograph-hunters, and tells her that he will never let anybody exploit her; Amy simply gestures at his camera crew. The man comes across as painfully self-unaware.

* A correspondent points out that this is almost word-for-word the same as a line in The AV Club's review of the film. I guess great minds think alike; I hadn't read their review before writing my own.

Back to Black, her second album, sounds fantastic in the cinema. On a technical level it was mostly performed by a real band, the Dap-Kings, although their recordings were run through Pro Tools and beefed up with samples so it's probably all sequenced anyway. But it has a big live sound that was very influential, and I'm sure that there was suddenly great demand for Pro Tools users who could emulate a live band. Back to Black was a major commercial breakthrough that managed to establish Amy Winehouse in the States, albeit briefly. The film points out that the success of the album didn't ruin her, it simply amplified the flaws she already had. Her third album, a collection of scraps released a few months after she died, sold well at the time but will always remain a footnote. Amy Winehouse's career parallels that of Ian Curtis, in a way; two albums and a collection of b-sides, deep psychological problems that appeared even before the commercial breakthrough, and we'll never know what came next.

I have always assumed that modern singers are called into the studio and told to sing somebody else's words, or they bring some lyrics which are then completely rewritten by a team; and after numerous takes their vocals are heavily edited, so that even if you can't hear the helping hand of AutoTune, it's still there. The days when musical chops counted for anything are long gone, and I can't say I miss them, but Amy makes it clear that Amy Winehouse was a terrific, one-take vocalist who really did write her own songs. There is footage of an early record company audition in which she plays guitar well enough to get through some chords without making any mistakes. Her lyrics are smart, often funny, direct, honest. "Fuck Me Pumps" is basically Lily Allen but better and years earlier.

Whatever editing went on in the studio was minor; there's a sequence in which Amy records some vocals, and we cut from the vocal channel on the mixing desk to the finished mix and then back again, and it's seamless. She appears to have been fantastic in the studio, and if I had been her manager I would have asked the producers to record absolutely everything she sang, every take, so that if she died I could release dozens of albums of edited outtakes, a la those 1970s Jimi Hendrix albums. I wonder why they didn't ask her to do an album of standards or a live album. It would have been an easy way of filling the gaps in her career. She was a technically excellent singer who had a good range, plus enough personality to dominate and subvert cover versions into her own songs. Again, we will never etc.


Amy was famous for her image, a kind of maximalist anti-glamour. The film doesn't explain where the beehive came from. According to the publicity material the director didn't want to emphasise the look, which I think is a shame. For Frank, Amy Winehouse was dolled up as a generic jazz sexpot in a tight dress, and it wasn't until Back to Black that the Amy Winehouse outfit emerged. She appears to have built up a beehive hairdo and a whole Romany peasant girl outfit, and then sabotaged it by cutting herself and walking on cobbles barefoot and sleeping in her hair, as if she wanted to destroy something substantial.

What about the documentary itself, though? As mentioned further up the page it's mostly archive footage plus interview voice-overs, punctuated with helicopter establishing shots of London. Amy grew up in the age of podcasts and AOL livestreams, so the filmmakers had no shortage of media. It's skilfully put together, and even without a narrator or a conventional timeline you know what's going on; the voice-overs are captioned so that you know who's talking, which occasionally comes across as overkill but I'm not fussed. Ninety percent of the cast are twenty-something white people with fake Cockney accents*.

*As pointed out by a perceptive interview subject in David Kynaston's Family Britain, even back in the 1950s people affected Cockney accents in order to impress tourists, or to impress upon people that you were one of them. The odd thing is that since the 1950s the people of Britain have gradually fallen out of love with the common man, and nowadays Britain is a country of homeowners who aspire to be posh, whilst affecting a Cockney accent in order to capture some of the hard image of actual Cockneys without wanting to appear genuinely poor. Everybody hates the poor now. The film has an odd sequence where Jonathan Ross - who has a fake, but very mild Cockney accent - ribs Amy Winehouse for sounding genuinely common, although they're both putting it on, layers of fakery. Writing in Forbes magazine, prize tit Zack O'Malley Greenburg describes her voice as a "thick English accent", oh just fuck off.

Amy operates on the level of a good BBC television documentary. It doesn't push the medium forward, unlike (say) The Thin Blue Line, and at times it is manipulative, although only occasionally. The last-but-one shot in the film is heartbreaking; two people united in grief at her funeral. We don't need a soppy montage after it. Nonetheless it has a quiet emotional power. If you ever cared for Amy Winehouse you will probably never want to see the film again, because once is enough.

On a personal level I don't own either of Winehouse's albums and I was never a fan. I went into the film simply because the reviews were good. I find it hard to feel sympathy for her because she grew up with far more than I did, but on the other hand she worked very hard for her shot at the big time. She wasn't conventionally good-looking, she had no unfair advantages, and she doesn't even appear to have been motivated by greed; the film suggests that she worked hard simply to escape the boredom of everyday life. When she finally had material wealth she didn’t do very much with it. Her wedding was low-key, her lengthy holidays in St Lucia were not extravagant affairs, the flat she bought in Camden was a home, not the first entry in a property portfolio. Admittedly she did squander tens of thousands of pounds on drugs, but that's because she wasn't thinking straight.

She fought for what she got, and judging by the newspaper interviews I have read she was nice to the staff, which is probably no consolation to the string of people were tasked with keeping her on the straight and narrow. One of her tour managers quit in 2007 after suffering from passive heroin ingestion - he had accidentally inhaled it while sharing space with Amy and Roger on their tour bus. Amy later hooked with former tour guitarist Alex Haines, who was touted as a new drug-free stabilising influence on her; but a month later he was expelled by Amy's management after it turned out that he was also a drug fiend (and a few months later he sold his story to the tabloids, with lurid tales of drug-taking and debauchery, so he was obviously a cad). I'd forgotten about the photographers. Winehouse lived in a flat in Camden, the location of which was public knowledge, and photographers crowded around it every day hoping for her to come out and do something outrageous. The middle and later portions of Amy reveal that she was unable to go anywhere without having to barge past groups of photographers. Perhaps a more active management team would have cut a deal whereby certain photographers got setups in exchange for leaving Amy alone, but this doesn't seem to have occurred to Amy's people.

Yes, but lots of people come from broken homes, and they don’t go on to become suicidal drug fiends. Except that a lot of them do. There are a lot of broken people in this world, we just never hear about them. As Amy points out in one of the interviews, when she was depressed she could pick up a guitar and escape into a fantasy world. Most people don’t have that option. They come from broken homes, born to stupid uncaring parents, they grow up with nothing in an environment where they aren’t wanted, and you and I ignore them.

One thing struck me as I watched Amy; Madonna must have a Will of Iron. Madonna spent most of her career alone and in complete control of everything, including her body, and is still around and making records. Whatever you think about Madonna, she was never anybody's victim. I saw Amy at the Curzon, Soho, and being a trendy cinema it opened with a trailer for Love and Mercy, a dramatised retelling of Brian Wilson's rise and fall and recovery, which suggests that if Amy had had several sisters and more active parents and psychiatric help things might still have gone to shit. In the words of Ernest Hemingway, the world breaks everyone.

Amy lived her life like a fighter jet; she needed hundreds of hours of maintenance for every flight hour, and although she had the money to pay for the parts she didn’t have the staff. It's often said that she did it to herself, and it was all her fault, but some people are broken in the strong places and you can't fix that just by telling them to get a grip. I'm not convinced that everyone who is flawed is worth saving - this world has no shortage of people - but Amy Winehouse was an exception.