The new haunting documentary, ‘Amy,’ has this psychotherapist theorizing about what could have set the late singer-songwriter on a path to self-destruction.
“I can’t help but demonstrate my Freudian fate,” Amy Winehouse sings in her 2003 song “What Is It About Men?” Oedipal struggles may often be relegated to a tired Freudian trope, which is easy to do until you see someone living them out. Especially someone like Amy Winehouse.
Unlike Maureen Goldthorpe’s 2011 “documentary” The Final Goodbye—which might as well have been commissioned by Amy’s father, Mitch Winehouse, as an “After School Special” cautionary tale about addiction—Asif Capadia’s new documentary Amy allows the artist, her friends, and her songs to recount the story of this haunted musical genius. Not surprisingly, it’s a harrowing tale, but not one solely about drug addiction.
Documentaries have that special collage-like quality. What’s left out is as important as what’s left in. The overall “gestalt” is what births our opinions. And as a psychotherapist, I have many about this extremely talented, smart, and witty person who struggled with clinical depression and bulimia under the neglectful care of toxic parents—a willfully ignorant and negligent mother and a sexually voracious, opportunistic narcissistic father, who would deny her the care she needed and instead fed off her like a succubus.
At the film’s open, we watch a 14-year-old Amy clowning with the two best friends who stand by her until the end. We see her laughing and singing, her precocious jazz-great voice silencing the room—and realize this, before us, is a once-in-a-lifetime talent. Amy’s mother, Janis, admits in the doc that when her daughter reveals her bulimia, she essentially shrugs it off—she doesn’t give it much thought. Janis tells the filmmaker she found her daughter’s strong will “difficult.” Of her father Mitch’s long-term extramarital affair that began when Amy was 18 months old, he says of his daughter, “she seemed well over it.” The Winehouses appear to not miss so much as ignore every clue about her suffering and depression, colluding in a fantasy that Amy wasn’t bothered, that she was a cheerful and perky child who loved music (as Mitch, aspiring crooner, did), never mind that she was drinking heavily, getting expelled from school, plotting her move out of their home since a young teenager. But Amy said she longed for boundaries earlier in life, someone to say no—and no one would. “You should be stronger than me,” she sang. She needed some stability, but always went for the wild ride.
Dad was psychologically seductive, rewarding Amy for singing, touring, fulfilling his eroticized image of her. When he comes to St. Lucia, where Amy has retreated, with his own reality-TV film crew, he chastises his worn-out daughter for “not being nice enough” to the autograph seekers he presents to her on the island. He subverts her rehab, constantly pushes her to work, and uses her obedience to him by emotionally manipulating her. He must have made for a tantalizing transferential figure—sexualized, idealized, often remote, the man she endlessly sought to please. “I worshipped him,” she said. (Though her father was originally involved with the film and is listed as a producer, he has since distanced himself from Amy.)
So perhaps it’s little wonder to a strict Freudian (which I’m not) that she would become magnetized to someone like Blake Fielder-Civil, a perfect stand-in for Daddy—he is brooding, dangerous, selfish, and had a funny way of turning up when her star was rising and she was flush. She could have told her story persuasively in a book we don’t tend to consult as much now for fear it’s not “feminist” enough—Women Who Love Too Much: When You Keep Wishing and Hoping He’ll Change, Robin Norwood’s ’80s chronicle of the phenomenon of addictive relationships. (“When our relationship jeopardizes our emotional well-being and perhaps even our physical health and safety, we are loving too much.”) You compulsively pick the bad boys who treat you badly. They make you experience life intensely (when it’s good it’s very good; when it’s bad it’s horrible). Nice boys seem boring; repetition ensues. You keep going to the dry well for water.
What she got out of Blake, and her father, was the high of love they often withheld. And each of them extracted what they’d sought from her: Blake, fame and money and a partner in crime for drugs. And Mitch, well, among many other things, a lounge-singing career crooning Frank Sinatra songs. He wouldn’t let her stop the relentless touring, even while she was dying in front of him—at one point, putting her passed-out body on a plane to Belgrade for a performance. He roadblocked a plan to send her to rehab at a crucial juncture, following an intervention for her alcohol consumption, before she’d even encountered crack cocaine and heroin.
“I’ll go if my Dad thinks I should go,” said Amy, climbing onto his lap like a 7-year-old girl. “She doesn’t need to go to rehab,” Mitch blithely states, and sends her to the States instead. He never sees her and never says no. She seeks a twinship with her father, with Blake, with everyone. “I would have died for him,” she says of Blake. “We were soul mates.” Mitch wouldn’t stop her from going to America although she was going down fast, and then during one of her rare drug-free periods, Blake snuck heroin into her room. A one-two punch.
I don’t mean to casually analyze Amy or her family. But there’s more to her story than a drug addiction tale that exempts everyone else’s behavior and neglect. It’s just that, if we’re being honest, many of us have been somewhere on the continuum of her painful love struggles, with shameful tales of intoxicated neediness toward men. Many of us wanted to be the boys we fell in love with; their cool, their confidence, their ease in the world. Amy’s doomed by her Freudian Fate, and for many of us, she’s also a classic Jungian “shadow” figure—for precisely those traits of dependency and obsessive preoccupations with bad boys which we want to deny in ourselves (we don’t want to see our shadow), for how this ballsy wild woman shrinks into a little girl, in her walk and posture and head tilt, when in the presence of Mitch, Blake, and even her idol, Tony Bennett (who is quite kind to her; perhaps one of the few men in her life who is professional with her and respectful).
I was shocked to discover how much I identified with her. My own journals recount the tale of an early relationship with a man 20 years my senior, a seductive womanizer who evoked an ongoing desperation in me, to keep searching for the admiring look in his eye, and my paralyzing insecurity that led me to read his journals, where I discovered his infidelity. “You’ve got amazing potential,” he once said, lifting me up bodily onto his kitchen counter, where my legs dangled with childlike delight. And then he threw me out, replacing me with an even younger version. I ran out into the snow at 24, and banged my head against the ground. I fell apart. I didn’t go to substances or eating disorders, but I was sure I couldn’t live without him. And still I went back for more, as soon as he would let me.
I owe this tiny bit of honesty to Amy, who was never snug in the suburbs. She continually took monumental risks—some brave, some ill-advised—and thrashed about in a perfect storm of creative talent, fear, bulimia, drugs, alcohol, celebrity, a trusted “soulmate” who introduced her to hard drugs—the list goes on. Her growing exhaustion is palpable in Amy. Her extraordinary fame at such a young age thrust her appetites and her shame and bloody ballet flats (evidence of where she’d been injecting heroin between her toes) into the flash of every camera. I recovered from my youthful descent. Heartbreak is inevitable, and can be borne. Amy’s essential heartbreak was a massive coronary. She didn’t recover. From any of it.
I like to think of Amy with her only benign father figure, Andrew Morris, the gentle giant/bodyguard, with her in St. Lucia towards the end; the only one who was strong with her. If she wanted to go out drinking, he simply said no. He tried to protect her from the insatiable media hordes. “She became my family,” he said tenderly.
Years ago, I let Amy pass me by musically. Awash in dreamy euro-pop, electronica, and indie singer/songwriters, I saw her as a brash, beehived, made-up parody of femininity, teetering on high heels I could never wear, and singing of heartache. I wasn’t as “into” her music. Looking back, I think I was running from the Shadow she cast of obsessive love and self-degradation (“Love is killing me,” she sang). I didn’t take the time to listen. I forgot the jazz lessons I’d had in my twenties, piano and saxophone with Lee Konitz, singing along with Billie Holiday records. Now I hear Amy and I’m astonished. She played her voice like a saxophone. You don’t have to love jazz, or soul, or R&B to recognize her genius. I shivered with shock and grief at the end of the film when the body bag is taken out of her Camden house, joining the “27 club”—Hendrix, Morrison, and Joplin and now Winehouse—dead at 27.
“Sweet and peculiar but most of all vulnerable,” said Russell Brand, of the moment when he first saw the hard-drinking North London girl singing on stage. Amy wasn’t always the sweet girl. She could be brash and insolent and didn’t suffer fools gladly. I liked that about her. There’s a scene in Amy where she tunes out a dumb reporter and goes vacant. She knows precisely the moment things are becoming inauthentic.
For me, oddly, the hardest moment to watch in Amy is one that seems to have charmed most people. Watching the latter stages of her brief career, we witness a healthy-looking young girl diminish into a haunted, emaciated, twitchy ghost. She pulls herself together, one more time, enough to go into the studio to record duets with her and her father’s idol, Tony Bennett. Amy appears shell-shocked, agog, scared. After a first start on a tune, she mumbles, “I shouldn’t waste your time; that was bad.” Bennett is patient with her insecurity as she begins to gather her things, as if she’s going to bolt on the session. Amy often said she didn’t want the huge fame. She just wanted to sing in small clubs, and work with the people she wanted to work with. Watching her with Tony Bennett, I thought of a little girl on a diving board, frantically trying to summon her Daddy’s attention before she performs a somersault into the water. “Dad, Dad, Dad! Look at me!” With Bennett, she is at her most classically “feminine,” apologetic, craving encouragement and praise, deferential. At one point she says, “I’ll really make my Dad jealous when he sees this.”
I cringed. I’d come to feel deeply for Amy. I was embarrassed for her, and not because she was falling down drunk on stage. She wasn’t; she was trying very hard to do a good job. I just wanted her to have the time to become more than the anxious little girl who only wanted to please and intrigue Daddy, all the Daddys—a woman who was free of that compulsion.
The duet with Tony Bennett was her last recording session, and four months later, she was gone.
AN INDEPENDENT FREE PRESS HAS
NEVER BEEN MORE IMPORTANT.
Your financial support helps DAME continue to cover the critical policies, politics social changes impacting woman and their allies.