By Randy Freedman
Amy Winehouse: Fading To Black
The 2015 film Amy is director Asif Kasadia's behind the scenes look at the rise and fall of the British vocalist Amy Winehouse. Drawing heavily from archived film footage, Amy paints a vivid three dimensional and very tragic portrait of the brilliantly talented young woman, singer and songwriter, who seemingly lacked inspiration and guidance from those closest around her, to help her steer past the troubled waters of her youth. Winehouse won five Grammy Awards for her most famous and unfortunately last album Back To Black before her life was cut short by accidental overdose of alcohol.
Amy Jade Winehouse was born in Chase Farm Hospital, in north London,on September 14,1983 to Jewish parents. Her father, Mitchell "Mitch" Winehouse, was a window panel installer and then a taxi driver; and her mother, Janis Winehouse (née Seaton), was a pharmacist. Winehouse's ancestors were Russian Jewish and Polish Jewish immigrants to London. Amy had an older brother, Alex (born 1979), and the family lived in London's Southgate area, where she attended Osidge Primary School. Winehouse as a child attended a Jewish Sunday school.
Many of Winehouse's maternal uncles were professional jazz musicians. Amy's paternal grandmother, Cynthia, was a singer and dated the English jazz saxophonist Ronnie Scott. She and Amy's parents influenced Amy's interest in jazz. Her father, Mitch, often sang Frank Sinatra songs to her. Winehouse's debut album, Frank, was released on 20 October 2003 and peaked at number three on the UK Albums Chart. Produced by Salaam Remi, many songs were influenced by jazz and, apart from two covers, Winehouse co-wrote every song. The album received positive reviews with compliments over the "cool, critical gaze" in its lyrics and brought comparisons of her voice to Sarah Vaughan, Macy Gray and others. The album went on to achieve platinum sales
Her second album, Back to Black, was released in October 2006, reaching number one on the UK Albums Chart and number seven on the Billboard 200 in the United States. The album was certified 11-times platinum by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) and was the best-selling album of 2007 in the UK. The first single from the album, "Rehab", peaked at number seven in the UK and at number nine on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US. The album's second single, "You Know I'm No Good", reached number 18 in the UK. Other singles included "Back To Black" which peaked at number eight in the UK, "Tears Dry on Their Own" and "Love Is a Losing Game". By July 2015, Back to Black had sold 3.58 million copies, becoming the 13th best-selling album in the UK of all time.
Fortunately for Kapadia, Winehouse grew up surrounded by friends with camcorders which enabled home video footage to be the film's chief source material, much of it revealing and disarmingly funny. In one hilarious sequence, the singer flounces around a holiday villa in the character of a Spanish chambermaid, flirtatious and a natural comedian in her element. Sweet clips of her showing off at teenage parties, or goofing around in the street before she was famous, only prove that the camera loved her long before the public did.
The main dramatic element of the film is Winehouse’s stormy romance with her bad-boy jailbird lover Blake Fielder, who inspired many of the songs on Back to Black. Kapadia uses the music to illustrate their real-life soap opera as much as possible, with handwritten lyrics unspooling across the screen in real time. Footage of the pair in Miami on their wedding day, in May 2007, looks impossibly blissful. But the relationship was abusive and volatile, ending in divorce in 2009. Winehouse called Fielder “the male version of me” but later claimed “the whole marriage was based on drugs.” The chemistry between them was obviously far from healthy.
Fielder is among 100 key players interviewed in the film, alongside the singer’s mother and father, studio collaborators Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, manager Raye Cosbert, and musician friends like Questlove of The Roots and rapper Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def). “She could drink anybody under the table,” Bey recalls. The singer’s final recorded work, a duet with her idol Tony Bennett, is a sweet vignette of star-struck fandom. “She was the truest jazz singer I ever heard,” Bennett says ruefully. But Kapadia’s real coup was in securing cooperation from Winehouse’s first manager Nick Shymansky, plus her childhood friends Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert. Their shared archive of pre-fame memories and video material is priceless.
Amy does not attempt a psychological explanation of Winehouse’s fissile character, though her bulimia, depression, substance addiction and fondness for dangerous men were clearly part of the toxic cocktail. Her father Mitch Winehouse also appears far too eager to exploit her fame, bringing unwelcome TV cameras to film her in the middle of a fragile post-rehab stay in the Caribbean. This sequence may explain his objections to the film. Kapadia also glosses over some of the singer’s less excusable behavior, including multiple arrests for assault. Mitch Winehouse and Amy
In what is the most famous clip from Amy, we see the 14-year-old Winehouse, an acne-ridden Jewish girl from the London suburbs, singing “Happy Birthday” in a spot-on impersonation of Marilyn Monroe. That doesn’t merely demonstrate Winehouse’s chameleonic skills, which would be at least as much a blessing as a curse in her musical career, but also the depth of her musical knowledge and her understanding of 20th-century icon worship.
But as a whole, Amy is an emotionally stirring and technically polished tribute. Its sprawling mass of diverse source material is elegantly cleaned up, color-corrected and shaped into a satisfying narrative. If Kapadia’s film feels like an incomplete story, that is mainly because Winehouse’s life was itself incomplete. Winehouse died way too young to leave a full legacy, only an unfinished symphony of great music and a mountain of untapped potential.
Nobody forced her to become a celebrity or a pop star (though which of us could resist those things, if they were offered?)
photo by Dave M. Benett
In retrospect it seems clear that a different kind of career, one not really available these days, might have kept her going a lot longer. We see Winehouse recording “Body and Soul” with Tony Bennett, and hear Bennett talk about the quality of musicianship he saw in her. Then he adds, that she simply didn’t live long enough to learn how to live. It’s devastating.
Whether she was busily scribbling her sexually-charged confessional lyrics in her girlish curlicue handwriting or wailing away at maximum strength, in a recording studio, with note-perfect pizzazz, Winehouse is revealed to be a natural-born entertainer with a raw sound and street style that borrowed from the past. A sultry Sarah Vaughan at the intersection of bee-hived Ronnie Spector and fragile Edith Piaf. All the while being her own person and true to herself as an artist.
But, as the film also makes all too clear, Winehouse was cursed with an array of dysfunctional traits that would inevitably combust into an inferno of public self-destruction.
Many of the danger signs were there even before the burden of celebrity arrived on the scene: an addictive personality, an often-maddening passive-aggressive nature, an unhealthy appetite for drugs and alcohol, a passion for reckless partying, a weakness for manipulative men, daddy issues that dated from her parents’ break-up when she was a child, lifelong struggles with depression, bulimia and self-doubt.
But what sets Amy apart from similar train-wreck bio-docs aren’t necessarily any new revelations. After all, her song lyrics – which Kapadia smartly employs as captions onscreen to draw out their power – pretty much unveil the heart of the tale all on their own. Instead, what stands out is the almost overwhelming sense of voyeuristic intimacy achieved by a vast array of archival clips, many unseen before and some shot by Winehouse herself, accompanied by vividly candid current-day audio commentary by those who knew her best. Sometimes, it feels as if we are eavesdropping on day-to-day conversations rather than just hearing the usual litany of platitudes and regrets.
I’m sure Winehouse fans knew this already, but the “daddy” referred to in her hit song “Rehab” really was her father, former London cabbie Mitchell Winehouse, who didn’t feel it necessary for her to seek alcohol treatment instead of fulfilling her contractual obligations. Although he initially went along with Kapadia, Mitch isn’t too happy about the finished results of Amy and it’s no wonder. He and Amy’s mother, who separated when Amy was young, come off not quite as abusive or evil, but as precisely the wrong kind of small-minded and disengaged parents for a startlingly talented and exceedingly impressionable girl, who wasn’t always likely to make the best decisions on her own. I wanted to climb into the movie and punch Mitch on several occasions during Amy, and then I felt like crying for him, on the most basic and human level. He had an amazing daughter that died and he (and we) still doesn’t understand why.
Winehouse also played a major part in sealing her own tragic fate, especially after appointing her concert promoter Raye Cosbert as her manager while on the verge of global stardom. The point is made by one interview subject that a promoter is primarily interested in keeping a client constantly on the road, since tours are his main source of income. Which is likely why, instead of allowing Winehouse to take a break and get her act together, she was regularly forced to do live concerts while clearly emotionally ill-equipped to do so. The result is well-illustrated in the film, with the out-of-it singer simply refusing to perform at a 2011 show in Belgrade, the first stop of an eventually cancelled European tour, to a chorus of boos and cat-calls. A month later, she would be gone
Thankfully, Amy ends on a high note, with her idol, Tony Bennett, eulogizing Winehouse by placing her among the ranks of Dinah Washington, Billie Holliday and Aretha Franklin. The veteran knows her better than most, judging by his wonderfully gentle handling of Winehouse, which is shown many times in earlier behind-the-scenes footage of the two of them recording the jazz standard “Body and Soul” at Abbey Road for his Duets II album. When a nervous Winehouse falters at first and haltingly asks for a do-over, the octogenarian flashes a grandfatherly smile and says, “Don’t worry, it always takes me a while to warm up, too.” And warm up she does, for the artistry that then pours forth, confirms that Winehouse was the real deal.
To his credit, Kapadia doesn't shy from any of it. Kapadia doesn't set out to glorify Winehouse in Amy or to excuse her poor decisions. Rather, he reveals a woman whose talent should be respected and mourned but who, caught up as she was in a downward spiral of drugs and depression, deserves pity as much as anything else.
While Winehouse was prodigiously talented, and she had the ability to turn on that megawatt charm, she was also a well-practiced brat. Even near the end, she was a spoiled little girl with a stubborn streak that ran as deeply as her vocal talent and that was perhaps the most fatal of her flaws. Amy, the movie, left us feeling more than a little shortchanged by the time it was over. So did Amy Winehouse, the human being and performer..
Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist, and devoted music fan. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine.