What if Amy Winehouse had been left alone?
Sunday 17 May 2015 06.00 BST
Every now and then in Camden in the early 2000s you’d see a mob of photographers moving like a single ball of flashing fire, and you’d know Amy Winehouse was in there somewhere. At the time she appeared to have been roughly drawn in hair and Rimmel, but strong in the way a cartoon is strong, like anvils could fall on her and she’d be fine, once the birds had stopped circling.
There’s a bit towards the beginning of the new Amy Winehouse documentary (it premiered yesterday in Cannes) when her father, Mitch, remembers the time her friends were urging him to send her to rehab. Though he elaborated on it later, he told them, famously, that he thought she was fine. Her old manager discusses that period with the regret of a man who has lain awake for many nights. He believes now that this was the moment they could have saved her. Because, of course, from there we know the story, with all its music and awe, all its moments of horror. It was the album she wrote next that sent her life bananas, and brought her too much fame, it turned out, for a tiny body to handle.
The Winehouse family has publicly distanced itself from the film (directed by Asif Kapadia, the man who made Senna), and it’s easy to see why. Although Amy’s husband Blake is cast convincingly as the villain, first introducing her to heroin and then keeping her using, her dad appears at best ignorant of his daughter’s best interests, at worst exploitative – when she escaped to St Lucia to get clean, he turned up with a Channel 4 documentary crew. When she was a teenager, and told her parents about this great new diet where you eat as much as you like and then vomit it up afterwards, both her mum and dad thought: “Ach, it’ll pass.” Except it didn’t, did it? It stayed, the bulimia, piggybacking on her talent and her success, and making her weak, because she had to carry that, too. Even when we see how her husband dragged her behind him into a nasty moat of addiction, I, as a fan, came away from the film feeling… guilty.
Many of us chose to forget, I think, when she died, that Amy Winehousehad been a go-to punchline for some time. She was a Halloween costume, the opening monologue on chat shows, the subject of ridicule by alternative stand-up comedians. I did it, too, I’m sure, taking the piss out of her pissery, before she started to stop singing on stage, swaying there confused like old wisteria. I cringe today at the carelessness of silly jokes, because now, looking back at that life and rare painful talent, it looks awfully as though, if she had only been left alone, with just a fag and her voice, playing to the small jazz crowds she says she craved, she would have lived.
It was on the bus home that I realised what this documentary most reminded me of. Have you seen Carol Morley’s haunting film, Dreams of a Life? It’s the story of 38-year-old Joyce Vincent, whose body was found in 2006 decomposing in her bedsit in Wood Green after she died unnoticed three years earlier, surrounded by Christmas presents. The TV was still switched on, still chatting away. It was about isolation and loneliness, and the tender bewilderment of friends who could have done more.
While Vincent was a solitary, elusive woman, Winehouse was never alone – she was worth too much money to be left to walk down Parkway by herself – and yet the feeling you get when you reflect on their lives and deaths is similar. As though they were trapped in themselves. In the Amy documentary, much of the footage looks like it was filmed by the paparazzi, which, as we see her through that blaze of flashes, adds an uneasy complicity. She walks mutely into Pentonville prison to visit Blake, her hair only slightly wonky, and we’re behind the camera, screaming her name. All of a sudden, being famous looks like the very worst thing in the world.THE GUARDIAN