(L) Billie Holiday at the d’Orly airport, Paris, 1958, photo by Jean-Pierre Leloire.
(R) Amy Winehouse, 2010, photo by Bryan Adams.
I went to the sad little documentary Amy the other night. It was artfully cobbled together in a hybrid fashion from existing clips, interviews, footage and family photographs, narrated by different talking heads and voice-overs. It was more or less chronological, always pushing forward to the implosion, the tragic early death that we knew was coming. There were digressions back to childhood but the narrative flow had an inevitability, a ceaseless forward motion towards the Greek tragedy outcome.
The film showed a sassy, North London, Jewish chick with Daddy issues and bulimia, who was a very talented singer. It showed a lyrical genius with a self-destructive side who couldn’t resist taking a negative and sarcastic view of everything. It showed a passionate relationship - full of emotional hostage-taking and co-dependency - with a fellow addict. There was harassment from paparazzi, exploitation by management and family, the pressures of super-stardom. The key moment was when the father, Mitch, said “You couldn’t help Amy, she was was going to do what she was going to do. I couldn’t make her go to Rehab, she had to want to go herself and she didn’t.” It is probably essentially true, yet smelt like callous neglect. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink, but you should at least make the attempt to lead it to the water.
Amy is accurate but not profound. It posed many questions but answered none:
Why are so many talented geniuses also self-destructive?
Does the artistry come out of the unexpressed pain or is that pain continuously sought in order to produce the artistry?
Is fame really that bad?
Why do extremely gifted people seldom seem to enjoy their success?
How could those loved ones around Amy have handled her differently and saved her life?
What struck me was the similarity between Amy and Billie Holiday: both highly original jazz vocalists with unique signature phrasing; both heavy drug users/addicts; both drawn to songs about love gone wrong; both misunderstood and under-appreciated in their short lifetimes. When will we human beings ever learn to nurture our special geniuses and not destroy them? Probably never.