2016 has been an awful year for many, the election of Donald Trump, rise of white nationalism, and just before the year is over, the singer George Michael and writer and actress Carrie Fisher has been taken from us.
I’ve lost track of the In Memoriam a long time ago. I am still stuck on Amy Winehouse. I am aware she died on July 23, 2011 at the age of 27, which in this digital age is aeons ago. Amy Winehouse belongs to the ’27 club’, which to me is just when your body gives up after one has abused it for so long, it’s not some cosmic fate or mystical number to me. It’s biological. A human body can only take so much abuse before it expires.
Unlike many sensationalist documentaries where the filmmaker focuses on the most scandalous and salacious bits of the subject’s life, Amy’s director, Asif Kapadia attempted to show the world the whole Amy, warts and all. Amy Winehouse is not a difficult subject to document, she’s neither reclusive nor shy. She’s a very open and candid person and doesn’t tend to sugarcoat events to make herself look better. And for someone who had such a short life and an even shorter time in the spotlight, she only became globally famous after the release of her album Back to Black in 2006, there was a lot of unreleased unseen footage which the director could draw from.
In an era where singers often lip synch, or use auto tune, Amy Winehouse was a revelation. She was brought up on Jazz music on the influence of her father Mitch Winehouse who was a huge fan of Jazz. Her voice is so crisp, so clear, so emotional. Amy Winehouse didn’t just sing Jazz music, she studied it and lived and breathed it. One of her band members said she had a PhD in Jazz music and often gave out ‘homework’ to her band members by requiring them to listen to Jazz albums and provided reading materials for them. Her first album Frank was a Jazz album she wrote herself and was named after her favorite singer Frank Sinatra.
Amy the movie shed light onto Amy Winehouse the full person, or to be more frank, how she came to be so fucked up, and it had nothing to do with fame. Not even close. Fame may have contributed to her problems, but they were not the cause. Amy came from what’s best described as an upbringing of benign neglect. Her parents were absent. They were loving, physically present but emotionally absent. The best way to describe her mother Janis Winehouse is a dingbat. She is a loving but vague woman, who has medical issues of her own (multiple sclerosis) and an unfaithful husband who was already gone before he packed his bags and moved in with his mistress. Amy poignantly said in one of her voice recordings “my dad was never there even when he was here”, when Amy and her brother were misbehaving at home and giving their mother a run around, her father never stepped in to discipline them, “didn’t even tell us to not be little shits”. Amy was also a strong willed child and her mother often caved to her daughters demands, regardless of how unreasonable or inappropriate it was. Janis Winehouse admits as much, she was totally helpless against the strong will of her daughter. She even suggested that her daughter’s frequent outbursts seemed like a form of Tourettes. When Amy told her mother that she was eating and throwing up her food as way of controlling her weight, instead of seeing the early dangerous signs of bulimia and taking her to a doctor, her mother thought it was a “phase” and that it would pass. When Amy’s father finally moved out of their family home, Amy began to show signs of depression and begun self-harming, her mother let a psychiatrist put Amy, then 12 years old on antidepressants (very dangerous for children under 18), and this is on top of her untreated bulimia. Amy had a warm and loving relationship with both of her parents, but she also knew they were not reliable parents whom she can turn to for help.
Janis and Mitch Winehouse failed to see what everyone else could see was wrong their daughter, and that is she (along with her brother) needed parental guidance, of any kind. Some force in their lives to say a firm ‘no’ when they were out of hand. All of those outrageous behaviors are just a test of boundaries to see how far they could push, and as we now know, it’s pretty far. There were no boundaries. When Amy became famous and her substance abuse issues spiraled out of control to where she was losing contracts and gigs, she had one chance to go to rehab, her managers asked Mitch Winehouse to step in as that is the only person that can make Amy do anything. But in that critical moment, where he could have stepped up and be a proper father to her, he failed her again, he said she didn’t need rehab. She was just upset at her breakup with her boyfriend and she’ll be fine with some rest. Many that knew her saw that to be a fatal mistake. It was the one and only chance where Amy was amenable to rehab without conditions. In her song Rehab, she writes:
They tried to make me go to rehab
I said, no, no, no
Yes, I been black
But when I come back, you’ll know, know, know
I ain’t got the time
And if my daddy thinks I’m fine
He’s tried to make me go to rehab
I won’t go, go, go