Poster by T.A.
Never underestimate the appetite
for seeing women like Amy Winehouse self-destruct
Wednesday 24 June 2015 19.50 BST
A new film about the singer’s desperately short life shows how her tragic story became a spectator sport – and death has done nothing to end the voyeurism
ow many times do you want to watch Amy Winehouse die? Five? Twenty? Is there a point at which you will feel sated by the sensation of watching a talented woman waste away in front of the world?
During her brief time in the hottest of spotlights – and it was so brief, a mere five years between the release of Back to Black and her death – Winehouse became a spectator sport. There was never any mystery to Winehouse: part of her appeal to her fans was that she told her life through her music; a major part of her appeal to the media was that she wore her pain on her person, from her scrawny body to her bloodied ballet pumps. Such is the voyeuristic and visual nature of the press, this has made her the ideal subject to be exhumed. Since her death her well-known story has been told and retold, with a pleasure verging on the necrophiliac.
The imminent Asif Kapadia documentary about her, Amy, has given the press the excuse to rehash this tale. I don’t think there’s been a weekend in the past two months when there hasn’t been another story about Winehouse in the papers, usually featuring her father, Mitch, and the pathetic wreck of a human which is all that is left of Winehouse’s ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil. One of the most heartbreaking elements of Kapadia’s film is the way it features footage from some of the many other documentaries about Winehouse which were made with the aforementioned usual suspects. Everyone wanted to look at her, but no one, Kapadia’s film confirms, was equipped to look out for her.
Mitch Winehouse has, in his usual vocal way, been complaining that the film is unfair on him, in particular that his quote “She didn’t need to go to rehab at that time” has been edited so that it omits the last three words. I can understand why Winehouse, who originally cooperated with Kapadia, hates the film – he does not come out brilliantly. Fielder-Civil gets far more screen time than any member of the Winehouse family, but this is probably a fair representation of Winehouse’s life in her early 20s.
When I interviewed her in 2004, her father drove her to meet me in his cab, introduced himself with a no-messing handshake, waited for her the whole time and then drove her home. No one doubts that he loved her. But he is kidding himself if he thinks that quote is what damns him in the film. In the screening I went to, the moment that elicited gasps in the audience is when we see Mitch flying out to St Lucia to see his daughter – accompanied by his own reality TV crew, much to her dismay.
If anything, the film is commendably restrained about criticising her loved ones (about the media, however, it is unstinting in its disgust). It doesn’t mention that Fielder-Civil posed for a tabloid visiting Winehouse’s grave in exchange for cash, or that her father launched his own singing career on the back of his daughter’s.
I loved Kapadia’s last film, about the life and death of Ayrton Senna, but was sceptical when I heard about this. Really, what else is there to say about Winehouse? And is there a way to say it without simply being another grubby voyeur? But Kapadia is a very gifted documentarian and he has made an intelligent, fond and harrowing movie, one that acknowledges the mistakes of others but rightly stresses that the self-destructive impulses that ultimately killed her – namely, the drinking and the bulimia – were a problem long before Winehouse was famous. As anyone who has ever loved an addict knows, blame is so far beside the point it’s in another universe.
But those interested in the Winehouse saga – which is presumably everyone who goes to see this very bleak film – won’t learn anything new from it, and Kapadia never promised otherwise. And yet the anticipation is extraordinary. I wrote earlier this week about the fashion world’s fetishisation of frailty, as exemplified by the recently banned Saint Laurent advert featuring a very skinny woman sprawled on the floor, as Winehouse often is in the film. This movie reinforces the point that one should never underestimate the public’s appetite for watching a woman destroy herself. For that reason, the spectacle of a dead tragic woman is always big business: Marilyn Monroe is pored over in death in a way that, say, the similar Montgomery Clift never has been.
The film adheres perfectly to the general rule of real lives on film, which is that women are tragic and men are heroic. This is especially true when it comes to artists: the recently released Kurt Cobain documentary, Montage of Heck, emphasises just how much of an easier ride Cobain got in his pre-internet life and post-internet death than Winehouse ever did. As Molly Beauchemin writes, self-destructive male artists are revered as tortured geniuses (Cobain, Johnny Cash, Michael Jackson), whereas female ones are dismissed as emotional wrecks (Winehouse, Janis Joplin, Whitney Houston).
Winehouse’s life was so short that it is impossible to separate her success from her demise. The movie works hard to keep the former in the foreground, even while including shots of her body being carried out from her house, from multiple angles. It’s a really good movie – by all means, go see it. But don’t ruin your evening out by thinking too deeply about why you wanted to in the first place.