by Joe C.
“This is a film about Amy and her writing,” says the film’s director Asif Kapadia. “People didn’t realize how important her lyrics were and how personal they were.”
Amy—The Girl Behind the Name is a 2015 documentary about the life and death of singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse. I saw it on the festival circuit in Toronto at North By North East this summer.
Even if you’re not a jazz fan, everyone knows Winehouse’s infamous contribution to pop-culture, the refrain from “Rehab”:
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.
On July 23, 2011, Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning. That day, Winehouse joined the club of 27-year-old pop-stars who the world has lost to addiction — Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones and Jim Morrison.
Amy the movie explores contributing factors to addiction. To understand the nuances of addiction, the most popular modalities look at the roles of both nature and nurture in the life of the addict. Family is part of this paradigm, as many of our addiction and recovery narratives reveal.
Daddy’s Girl was one of Amy Winehouse’s prominent tattoos. Body ink is a commitment, a symbol that permanently echoes how we self-identify. Kapadia devotes a good deal of the movie’s story to the role of daddy, Mitch Winehouse, in the Amy Winehouse drama. It’s worth noting that while both Amy’s mother and father were cooperative in making Amy, Mitch was angered by how the movie serves him up for any viewer looking for a villain to this tragedy.
Amy’s eating disorder and mental health issues have pre-teen origins. Soon, she began self-medicate with sex, alcohol and drug addiction.
Is it fair to say Amy had daddy-issues that contributed to her demise? We learn that Amy’s father started having an affair when she was about 18 months old and drifted away from family life. He would eventually trade in his domestic role to pursue romantic pleasure. In the movie, Mitch rationalizes that Amy got over his leaving very quickly. We also hear Amy speak to this game changer in family life. “When dad was there, he was never there for the important bits,” Amy says.
Already displaying bulimic tendencies and on anti-depressants, Amy describes daddy’s leaving as a time when she could get away with acting up at home. Winehouse lyrics from “What is It About Men” on her Album Frank are used to put an exclamation on the movie’s thesis:
Understand, once he was a family man
So surely I would never, ever go through it firsthand
Emulate all the shit my mother hated
I can't help but demonstrate my Freudian fate
My alibi for taking your guy
History repeats itself, it fails to die
And animal aggression is my downfall
I don't care 'bout what you got, I want it all
Why was Amy Winehouse drawn to jazz? Daddy was a jazz singer, albeit not the Grammy award-winning virtuoso that Amy was. Mitch is portrayed as an opportunist whose return to Amy’s life was motivated more by taking his place as conductor of the Amy’s career than by any regret about his past life choices. Any time we hear Mitch weigh in on Amy’s process addictions and substance abuse, he offers an enabling minimization of treating addiction vs. opportunity cost. A goose doesn’t lay golden eggs in rehab after all, “no, no, no”; the show must go on or nobody gets paid.
The movie is told through a lot of camcorder video typical of early Millennials like Amy. The viewing experience might feel less low-res if you skip the big-screen theatrical run and wait for DVD or online streaming. Tony Bennett remembers Amy, not as an addict but as a great contributor to jazz that lives on. For me, I can’t separate my addict-to-addict connection, nor can I set cause-of-death aside as paramount to this story. I was affected, both in the way art affects me and how triggers affect me. This film easily moves into my top-ten addiction movies.
Clean and sober since 1976, Joe C. is the author of the daily reflection book Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life(Rebellion Dogs Publishing 2013). Joe contributes to financial planning, music and recovery lifestyle publications.