Sunday 25 September 2016

Amy: the angel and the demons

This warts-and-all documentary about the brilliant but fragile singer should be compulsory viewing for all wannabe stars... as a warning of what might happen

Neil McCormick

Published 05/07/2015 | 02:30

Amy Winehouse
Amy Winehouse

The Amy Winehouse documentary left me raw. I don't think I have ever seen a more powerful indictment of the toxic effect of fame. The spell it cast may have been so strong because I had met the singer. This wasn't the distant tragedy of some mythic star, it was a girl who grew up near me in north London, who I met early in her career and watched bloom into an extraordinary talent. And then watched being completely crushed in a terrible collision between her internal demons and the demands of a voracious pop industry.

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The first time I saw Amy Winehouse, she was aged 19, singing jazz in Pizza Express. "I'm not a great singer, ya know what I mean?" she insisted during our first interview, against all the evidence. "People are very throwaway with their words. If someone comes out and they've got hoop earrings and a big bum, it's like 'she's a diva!' You have to earn these things. Not from other people, from yourself. You have to earn your own respect."

It was 2003, before the beehives and tattoos and before the release of her witty debut album, Frank. Winehouse was funny, mouthy, awkward, shy but spirited, a likeable young girl still coming to grips with her talent. She dragged her taxi-driving dad Mitch up for a Sinatra duet that they both took huge pleasure in. I met all her family, sharing pizza slices and red wine, and they struck me as friendly, down-to-earth people, delighting in Amy's rising fortunes.

"When I write a song and play it and sing it for the first time, it's the best feeling in the world," she told me the following year, when she had been nominated for a Brit award. "In this life, there's not many things I can do and be comfortable with myself doing, but I feel like I was put here to do this."

The last time I saw Amy, she was 27, in the legendary Abbey Road studios, duetting with one of the greatest jazz vocalists ever, Tony Bennett. And not just singing with him, singing all over him, rising and flowing and following the notes, playfully shaping her lustrous full-toned vocal to blend with the veteran's oaken but beautifully nuanced lead.

"You're just feeling it. You don't think about it. If you thought about it, you wouldn't be able to sing it at all," she told me afterwards. "I'm not a natural-born performer. I'm quite shy, really? You know what it's like? I don't mean to be sentimental or soppy but it's a little bit like being in love, when you can't eat, you're restless, it's like that. But then the minute you go on stage, everything's OK. The minute you start singing."

That was in March 2007. Three months later she was dead. It was her last interview and she only did it because of her lifelong love and admiration for Bennett, who I was shadowing for a feature. Amy had been through the wars by then, and she was cagey around me, a long way from the open, high-spirited girl I had first encountered. She turned up for the session late, with a big entourage of managers, make-up artists, stylists and assorted friends of unspecified purpose hyper-tuned to her whims. Despite this show of strength, there was an insecurity about her, one moment bright and smiling the next withdrawn and sulky.

I came away from our encounter convinced the worst was over, that she had pulled herself back from the brink. It may have been the last time anyone heard her sing.

There is something very up close and personal about the documentary, Amy.

It is constructed from found footage, news reports, TV performances, out-takes and low-resolution home video shot by friends. The singer's face often completely occupies the frame and the way it changes is heartbreaking, from wide-open sweetness to the dead-eyed dismay of a gaunt, skinny wreck in the space of a few years when, on the face of it, she had achieved more than she could have imagined: fame, fortune, critical acclaim.

The horror of what unfolds on screen was made immediate and personal to me by the mundane familiarity of the London music milieu. As a music journalist, I would see Amy around, brief encounters in studios, venues and at awards' ceremonies. I watched her descent into bedraggled addiction, frequently off-her-face, hanging off some equally bedraggled guy, while paparazzi lurked outside waiting to capture lucrative shots of her latest disgrace. I never perceived myself as one of her persecutors. But I was left with the disquieting notion that we all played a part in Amy's downfall .

There are moments in the film where you see vast audiences roaring approval at a skinny, drunken girl barely able to stand up, let alone sing. We bought her recordings by the millions, we garlanded her in awards, because her voice was so rich and expressive, her songs so direct and emotional, yet too few seemed to stop and think what it might take to protect such a fragile talent. Somehow the pop world treated her breakthrough hit, 'Rehab', as a jolly anthem of rebellion, even though its subtext was obviously delusional.

There is footage of a European tour in 2011 that Amy was pressurised into fulfilling at a time when the whole world was aware of her struggles with drugs and alcohol. A huge crowd in Belgrade roar her name in adulation then boo and heckle when she refuses to perform in a lonely act of self-destructive defiance. And it feels like that crowd represents all of us, in our perverse instinct to raise idols on impossible pedestals and our salacious appetite to observe them crack and fall.

There are some heroes in the story, lifelong friends who fought for her, musicians who brought out the best in her, a young manager she sacked because he tried to make her change her lifestyle. And there are some who should blush to watch it. Her family don't approve of the movie but their love and loss is really not for anyone else to question.

But there were all kinds of forces and figures whose financial interests were tied up with a vulnerable young adult in need of strong guidance. If you want to hear the sound of guilt, listen to the chorus of voices denying personal responsibility for Amy's fate.

The hardest thing to watch is paparazzi swarming all over her, a pack of long-lens wolves snapping at their distressed prey. It is hard to believe such predatory behaviour is actually legal.

This film should be shown to every wannabe star as a warning of what might lie in store. And it should be viewed by members of the media as a reminder of the need for compassion when dealing with vulnerable human beings in the spotlight. Maybe the next time a situation like this arises, as it inevitably will, we can find a way to ameliorate rather than exacerbate it.

The one thing that elevates this depressing spectacle is the music. Every time Amy sings, the mood lifts. We get to see, once again, that her expression of personality through song was of the highest order. But still you can't help but think of songs unsung. For such an enormous talent, she really recorded so little music in her short life.

At the end of the film her bodyguard, Andrew Morris, recalls the last night of Amy's life, when she showed him live footage of herself performing, and declared, in tones of wonder, "Boy, I can sing!" But there is sense of a terrible defeat as Morris recalls Amy's next words. "If I could give it back just to walk down that street with no hassle, I would."

Amy is in cinemas this weekend

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