Why I Won’t Be Watching ‘Amy’

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Photo Credit: Universal Studios

Amid the cinema release of Amy, the documentary about Amy Winehouse, Leo Jay Shire wonders whether such a film should really be entertainment. 

I can remember the first time I heard Amy Winehouse. I was sat in my bedroom, with a window open, staring out into the city, and Amy came on the radio. She was singing, low and heavy in her chest, a simplistic melody of a catchy chorus: ‘They tried to make me go to rehab but I said no, no, no’. The song sounded old and worn, like listening to blues singers from way back when. But Amy’s song had an intensity and a character; sarcastic, blasé, funny and honest, that was entirely new and unlike anything I had ever heard before.

She was the first celebrity I’d truly idolised

I was sat in the same place listening to the same radio when I heard that Amy had died. It was news that I didn’t want to believe. In the several years that had passed since I’d first heard ‘Rehab’ on the radio, I had grown into a devoted Winehouse fan. Not satisfied with being a casual radio listener of her work, I’d purchased both of her albums and taken to dressing like her: black eyelids, black skinny jeans, and ballet pumps that blistered my heels. She was the first celebrity I’d truly idolised, and now she was gone.

This summer, four years after her death, Amy, a documentary about the life of Amy Winehouse is being released. I won’t be watching it. For such a big fan, this might seem strange, especially after admitting how I used to watch footage of her for hours on end while she was alive. But during those same years, Amy had experienced a public transformation. She had gone from being a well-respected but relatively under-the-radar jazz singer to an international superstar. With the genre of her music considered, Amy seemed an odd choice for tabloid scrutiny, jazz and blues singers rarely made headlines, but her erratic private life made her the paparazzi dream. As her fame grew greater, the interest in her private life grew with it.

Videos would pop up of her performing drunk, walking around the stage with vacant eyes, searching through the audience as if she wasn’t quite sure what she was doing there. Pictures of her appeared in papers with cuts and bruises, eyes rolled back into her head, her frail skinny frame hardly capable of keeping her upright. There was a perverse deliciousness to it all. Amy represented the perfect fall from grace and the country was hooked, her downward spiral producing column after column in paper after paper.

There is a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that goes like this: There was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very good indeed, but when she was bad she was horrid. 

I feel as if this poem represents Amy. Her drunken stage performances are still painful to watch, but when her live performances went well they were magical. Her performance of Love Is A Losing Game at the 2007 Mercury Awards is still one of the best performances I have ever seen. It was hauntingly heart-breaking. Here was Amy, singing what was going to be the last song released in her lifetime, stood in front of a microphone telling a truth to the audience, ‘I wish I’d never played, oh, what a mess we’ve made.’ 

I felt like we were sharing a secret. I felt like she was mine.

Amy wasn’t just a good singer, she was a brilliant songwriter and an underrated performer, and that came from her honesty. She spoke about her life without censoring or zhuzhing up her experiences and performed them as if she was just chatting to a friend about something that happened the other day. When I listened to Amy I felt like I could relate to her, despite being too young to experience half of the things she spoke about, but it just seemed as though she was speaking directly to me, like I was meant to understand what she was feeling. I felt like we were sharing a secret. I felt like she was mine. 

But what happens when everyone thinks they’re entitled to your experiences? We were never owed so much honesty from Amy, but it seemed as though the more she shared with us, the more the public felt the right to claw deeply into her private life for more. It seems paradoxical. 

By nature, the new Amy documentary will be an extension of this invasive determination to get under the surface of Amy Winehouse. It will entertain, in the same way a Greek tragedy does; documenting her rise to fame and her devastating denouement. I’m sure it will be heartbreaking, thought-provoking, poignant, and more, but were I to watch it an uncomfortable question would still linger in the back of my head: What right do I have to find this entertaining?

Amy is not mine, as much as it may feel like it, and her life story is not something I am entitled to

Amy Winehouse is dead. She didn’t appreciate press invasion when she was alive and I’m sure she still she wouldn’t appreciate it now. It feels like an act of active disrespect towards an artist I respect immensely, to clock out of my own life for two hours to relish in the desolation of hers. Because Amy is not mine, as much as it may feel like it, and her life story is not something I am entitled to. The history of Amy Winehouse is not a story that should be told by anybody but Winehouse herself.

It is not fair to gut humans like fish, to reveal all their secrets and allow them no privacy.

And it’s a story that she did tell. Perhaps not in a conventional way, but Amy Winehouse left behind two beautiful studio albums and many other works of music that capture a vibe and a time and a life almost perfectly. Do we really need a documentary about her life when ‘Frank’ and ‘Back To Black’ exist? Is there anything that can be learned about Amy’s personality that can’t be learnt from her own honest admissions on record? Amy put all the life she could spare into her music, and the media persisted in squeezing out whatever was left. It is not fair to gut humans like fish, to reveal all their secrets and allow them no privacy. It seems especially cruel that this is what happened to Amy, a person who already shared with the world so much.

I won’t judge those who see Amy or criticise their motivations, but it’s not something that I could personally sit through without a heavy conscience. It is not the form of entertainment that Amy Winehouse ever personally offered. ‘And now the final frame,’ Amy Winehouse sings as her Mercury Prize performance comes to a close, ‘love, is a losing game.’ The crowd begins to clap and Amy steps away from the microphone, smiling shyly at the floor. ‘Thank you,’ she says, twiddling her legs with her hands politely behind her back, while the entire room erupts with applause. 

Amy is screening at the Watershed from Fri 3 – Thu 16 July.  Leo won’t be watching it, but will you? Let us know your thoughts @rifemag

If you want more information on dealing with alcohol & drug misuse Bristol Mind has some great links, or check out Off The Record for help and advice with mental health issues. 

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