“If I really thought I was famous, I’d top myself.” – Amy Winehouse, 2007
Amy, Asif Kapadia’s documentary on singer Amy Winehouse, is a brutal and heartbreaking glimpse into the short life of one of the greatest singers of our generation. Thanks to an endless supply of home and phone videos, Kapadia strung together a clear narration of Winehouse’s rise to stardom, from a mouthy teen to a car crash created and perpetuated by the media. Similar to Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and Heaven Adores You, a documentary on Elliott Smith, she is mostly defined by her ‘trouble’ rather than the extraordinary talent that brought her fame.
Like Winehouse, Smith is often defined by tragedy and characterised as a sad singer-songwriter but through old tour videos and interviews with him and his friends, it’s plain to see that we let a small fraction of his identity take over his history. A smiley, sweet and terribly funny guy, Smith surprised everybody the first time he performed his solo music. When grunge was in full swing in the early 90s in Portland, Oregon, no one expected him to pluck away at an acoustic guitar and sing songs of hopeless romance. In the same way that no one expected a gobby north London girl to sing soul like a woman three times her age, Smith’s presence demanded the attention of whoever was in the audience.
Cobain and Winehouse’s dislike of the media is evident from early interviews. When one journalist puts Winehouse in the same category as Dido, her face twitches with disgust. She refused to play the game. During MTV interviews, Cobain would put on voices and dryly challenge the interviewer. Using diary entries and old illustrations along with TV and radio interviews, Montage of Heck is a slight insight into the fucked up world of Cobain. There is no other way to put it.
All three musicians are – without a doubt – geniuses. Their songs are confessional. Every inch of their beings went into their music and we knew the murky depths of their brains and hearts. The spotlight was firmly on Winehouse and Cobain during their darkest days. The personal details of Smith’s life weren’t fodder for Vanity Fair or Now! Magazine but in live reviews, his physical and mental health was scrutinised by journalists, some predicting if he’d be alive in a year or not.
We watched as Winehouse’s life sprawled out in the tabloids. The documentary shows footage of her in rehab in 2007 following an overdose. She was 23 and she had booze, cocaine, crack cocaine and heroin in her blood. Three days later, she was photographed with her husband Blake Fielder leaving a London hotel, with mascara running down her face, covered in scratches and blood. You know the photos. The bloodied ballet pumps and the pair holding hands like nothing had happened. Shortly after, we see footage of Jay Leno and others mocking her addiction. It’s sickening and yet we watched like it was a TV drama. As long as Winehouse sold records and showed up to gigs – she didn’t even have to sing because this car crash was still a performance – she was worth something.
One year later, she wins five out of the six Grammy awards that she was nominated for. Her friend Juliette Ashby says that that night, in the height of celebration, Winehouse pulls her aside and says “It’s so boring without drugs” and your heart just drops.
The price of fame on Winehouse, Cobain and Smith was their life. Whether they stayed alive longer because record labels knew their worth and could invest in them or not is hard to tell. Nowadays, musicians are taught how to handle the media. They craft an image and it’s all smiles for the red carpet or rehearsed stunts to grab headlines until the cracks show and we start speculating. It’s an endless cycle and no one seems to learn. Winehouse, Cobain and Smith gave us everything, even when their record labels wanted them to play it safe.
It’s hard to know the full truth because in each film, friends, family, colleague, record labels and partners shift the blame. Some characters are villainised more than others – maybe to fit the narration – but overall, you can draw your own conclusions but you are left drained. With Amy, the footage is so recent and so fresh in our memories, that you can’t help but feel guilt and devastation.