In one of the most brilliant shots on broadcast television, Amy Winehouse stands on the stage of Riverside Studios in London, illuminated by one spotlight as she processes the information that she’s just won Record of the Year at the GRAMMYs. It’s February 2008, she’s recently clean, and the man who announced her award is one of her biggest idols – “Dad, Dad, it’s Tony Bennett!”, she giddily exclaims.
This moment, that flash of childlike awe, is something of a climax in Asif Kapadia’s Amy, his 2014 documentary on the singer’s life and career. It’s one of the few moments of seemingly innocent joy, a boundless celebration of her incredible talent, but it is tainted. Her childhood friend Juliette Ashby narrates: “I’m looking at her, trying to get some form of reaction, and she went, ‘Jules, this is so boring without drugs.’”
To tell the story of the life of Amy Winehouse is to explore a complicated dependence on drugs, a slew of unstable relationships, and the true terror of the tabloid media. But underneath everything, Amy was a person, despite the stories that the tabloids might have tried to sell. And it is this that Kapadia cares about most; Amy is an attempt at humanising a woman who, by the time of her untimely death in 2011, had been remorselessly derided by the media (Kapadia makes sure to include clip from numerous comedians, including Frankie Boyle, who described her as “a campaign poster for neglected horses”, and Graham Norton, who branded her “a mad person”). At this point, her sophomore album Back to Black had been an almost overnight success, leaving Amy to live in what her friend and former manager Nick Shymansky called a “goldfish bowl”, her life and her decisions being scrutinised in every possible way by anyone with an audience. She was “unravelling” in front of the entire world.
Our fascination with famous women, particularly those deemed ‘troubled’, borders on and often becomes an obsession, and Amy’s life was made uninhabitable by it, an experience which was not unique to her. Last year’s #FreeBritney movement, which campaigned for the end of Britney Spears’ conservatorship, highlighted yet another case of a famous woman left vulnerable at the hands of the tabloid media. High-profile female celebrities such as Lindsay Lohan, Lily Allen, Courtney Love, Caroline Flack all had their lives ruined in some way by the persistence of tabloids – and this list is in no way exhaustive. Each of these women is or was a person, with very human responses to the situation they were placed in, but who were mercilessly judged nonetheless.
In many of these cases, Amy’s included, our obsession hinges on the presence of tragedy. Tabloid news feeds off catastrophe, and documentaries and biopics replicate the same pattern. The past few years have seen a huge number of biopics in cinemas, almost all of which focus on the tragic nature of the celebrity experience: Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), Judy (2019), and, most recently, Elvis (2022). One name, however, seems unable to shake the very desperate attention which plagued her life: Princess Diana.
The differences between Diana and Amy are significant – one a monarch-by-marriage, the other a soul singer from North London, the two living in entirely different worlds. But the similarities are also undeniable, with existences marred by the stench of unrelenting paparazzi and global fame and their abrupt deaths incessantly dissected by vulture-like tabloids. Dehumanised and transformed into public entertainment, they are now made into martyrs of sorts by the same people who made their existence so difficult in the first place. Diana, unlike Amy, has been the subject of a vast amount of media since her death, notably Pablo Larrain’s Spencer, Netflix’s The Crown, and the West End musical Diana, which has been noted as a wholly disrespectful entity. Regardless of one’s opinion on each iteration of Diana, it is difficult to deny that there is an underlying obsession with her in British and American film and television. Is it the result of delayed remorse? It’s possible that we are finally reckoning with the circumstances of her death. In the wake of the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, we were led to reflect on how we treat women like Diana and Meghan while they’re alive, and how drastically different it is to our treatment of them once they’re dead. And this preoccupation with deceased women is evident across film, in the plethora of true crime documentaries and dramatisations which almost always feature killers who murder women alone; even in Amy, which does its best to delicately handle the story of her life, Amy Winehouse is a dead woman, ‘doomed’ to end up that way. Our compassion doesn’t often extend to the women we deride in the media until they have succumbed to the harassment in one way or another.
The posthumous media treatment and obsession with Diana is monumental, on a scale that, hopefully, Amy Winehouse’s legacy is never subjected to. Amy stands as an outlier from the norm of media paying homage to these women whose lives were so publicised, as Kapadia carefully threads on ground that could so easily become exploitative. Amy feels earnest and like the product of someone who has a genuine admiration for the singer’s talent and humanity. Everything is about her and her alone. At no point does the film veer off to discuss anyone else; at almost every single moment, it is her on screen. It is dedicated to her in the most genuine, adoring way.
In Naomi Parry’s volume on Amy, Beyond Black, one of Amy’s close friends, Catriona Gourlay, writes about their friendship, saying that Amy and Amy Winehouse were two separate entities, inextricably linked but different regardless. The latter was big hair and a loudmouth, a mess in the papers and, eventually, on stage. Amy, on the other hand, was a kind and self-assured young woman, filled with a cackling laugh and a kindness that Gourlay reminisces on with a sentimentality that can only come from a place of love. In Amy, we see both, the emphasis on their differences unmistakable. Kapadia refuses to let Amy diminish in the shadow of Amy Winehouse, instead planting her firmly in the forefront as the person we should remember.
Tony Bennett appears once more in Amy, towards the end of the film. Together, the two of them recorded a cover of ‘Body and Soul’ in March of 2011, only three months before her death. It is one of few moments of relative serenity – in his presence, Amy is flustered, but it is clear how eventful this moment is. She is reduced again to a young woman in awe of the man who inspired her for most of her life, but Bennett is calm – a little starstruck himself. It is a blisteringly human interaction.
Amy died on the 23rd of July 2011 at her home in Camden, from a combination of alcohol poisoning and the consequences of an eating disorder. Tony can be heard speaking over news clips of the day: “if she had lived, I would have said, ‘slow down. You’re too important. Life teaches you how to live it, if you could live long enough.’” To approach the subject of her death with Tony Bennett’s wise, mournful words is a decision that beautifully brings Amy to a close and a graceful reminder that at the heart of everything, all the addiction and paparazzi and the façade, was a woman who was yearning to do the one thing she loved – making music. Freely.
Alix Hudson is a History graduate and hobby film writer based in Edinburgh who has written for The Skinny, Screen Queens, and Film Daze. She loves films about love, especially ones made in the 90s, and has a soft spot for a good disaster flick. Her favourite film is Princess Mononoke.