Through a Lens Darkly: The Unravelling on Film of Amy Winehouse and Brian Wilson

By Mossman, Kate | New Statesman (1996), July 3, 2015 | Go to article overview

Through a Lens Darkly: The Unravelling on Film of Amy Winehouse and Brian Wilson


Mossman, Kate, New Statesman (1996)


Amy (15)

dir: AsifKapadia

Love & Mercy (12A)

dir: Bill Pohlad

I lived near Amy Winehouse and, the night after she died in July 2011, I went over to the house to have a look. The upper windows were covered in metal shutters and a lone policeman stood out front; a trickle of young Camden Italians wearing spiky backpacks were arriving to start a vigil. Otherwise, there was "nothing to see here". A father carrying a small boy started to turn away and the boy objected: "No, Dad, I want to watch." It was a strange thing to say but watching was what you did with Amy Winehouse.

Three years earlier, I had stood in the crowd at Glastonbury Festival and looked on as she slurred and teetered, an indecipherable parody of what she had been. The audience was gripped but hard faced. At these catastrophic performances, people disguised their discomfort with irritation or made sardonic jokes. They came so that they would have something to tell their grandchildren.

After she died, I waited for the intelligent books, the box sets, the career retrospectives, the tribute album, the tribute concert --but there was very little. The Winehouse story suddenly felt cheap and nasty. Already a legend while she was alive, in death she was suddenly out of date, frozen in an unappealing period of recent history recalled in a montage of sailor tats, trilbies, Baby-shambles and Blake.

Winehouse was responsible for the soul revival that is still the dominant attitude in modern UK pop. She pioneered an expectation in performance that now fuels the TV talent shows--that your music is your life, turned inside out and on display--and she refocused the ear on singing. She was the figurehead of a new wave of female megastars. She was all these things without knowing, or trying, or caring, and like all trailblazers she was nothing like those who came in her wake. She is still artistically the most influential British pop star of the 21st century. An intelligent look at her was well overdue.

Asif Kapadia's Amy starts off hopefully enough, with a hair-raising video in which a teenage Winehouse performs "Happy Birthday" on the stairs, overpowering her friends and inhaling the camera. There are early interviews in which she namechecks influences no teenager should know: Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Thelonious Monk. And there are the rambunctious and surreal ramblings of a self-conscious but totally free spirit. Lounging next to an older, cooler boyfriend, she asks, "Do you think you could eat 50 eggs?"

Amy handles lyrics well, too, etched in her handwriting across the screen:

   I couldn't resist him
   His eyes were like yours
   His hair was exactly the shade of brown
   He's just not as tall, but I couldn't tell
   It was dark and I was lying down
          ("I Heard Love Is Blind")

It's important to remember that years before her collaboration with Mark Ronson, Winehouse was pulling these sparkling musical epigrams out of the air, so physically wrapped up in each performance that she always looked as though she was writing the song on the spot. "She had one of the purest relationships to music I had ever seen," says her piano player. Tony Bennett explains why she hated big gigs: "Jazz artists don't want to be playing the same song every night for 50,000 people." "If you're that good at 18, what are you going to be like at 25?" says someone else, ominously.

In a bizarre innovation, Amy uses only vocal interviews with its contributors, set over amateur video footage and increasingly lingering, slow-motion shots of its star in various states of health. The effect is nothing if not dramatic. Reduced to a tremulous, disembodied voice, her mother sounds astonishingly hopeless: "When she was 15, she told me, 'Mum, I've got this great diet. I eat what I want and then I bring it up again.' I really thought it was a phase." The unseen Blake Fielder-Civil, Winehouse's bruiser Svengali ex-husband, is a throaty, metallic, Gollum-like whisper: "I was cutting my wrists at nine . …

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