I’m not proud of this, but it wasn’t until seeing the new documentary Amy that I realized Amy Winehouse was talented.
Not that I ever listened to her music at the time. I don’t know what I was up to in the middle years of the previous decade, but her name never registered with me except as someone the paparazzi were a little too interested in. But then I don’t much care who those camera-wielding cretins think is interesting, so I never paid her any mind. Then she died in the summer of 2011 and that was that.
As it turns out, it wasn’t.
Toward the end of Amy, no less than Tony Bennett asserts that had she but world enough and time, Winehouse could have been considered alongside the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and other immortals of American blues. To see this movie with fresh eyes, as I did, is to wonder if Bennett wasn’t onto something. That it was entirely plausible that, with nothing more than the skills that came naturally—the sass, the lyricism and that voice—Amy Winehouse could’ve hung around the music scene for another 50 years.
Instead, she died at 27 from an overdose of fame.
Her life was a tragedy as all such lives are—those shooting stars who never quite figure out how to handle themselves once in orbit, retreating into drugs, booze and unreliable boyfriends.
But Winehouse was tragic on a level all her own, because in addition to her musical abilities, she possessed an acute self-awareness that many performers lack. As seen and heard in the new documentary, she more or less predicts that becoming super-famous would be a disaster for her mental well-being, musing that she is essentially a small-time blues singer built for intimate clubs and the like, and that she is hostage to certain psychological demons that she can control only through writing songs.
In short, she knew exactly what was wrong with her but, in the end, was powerless to do anything about it.
That’s what makes her story so painful: The possibility that she could have reined in her ambitions—and her handlers—by directing her musical gifts to the sort of small-scale, old-time jazz life she apparently valued most. It wouldn’t have made her very rich and probably not very famous, but it just might have made her happy.
But then that’s the paradox of success: You can have too much of it or not enough, but few seem able to achieve just the right amount. You cannot be as talented as Amy Winehouse for very long before some record producer kidnaps you and plots your entire future, with or without your consent. Whatever your reservations, how many of us would have the discipline to resist the prospect of total economic security and eternal glory?
Hence the longstanding tendency in the music industry and elsewhere to continuously try to outdo yourself, pushing your talent, your brand and your luck right up until something stupid or terrible happens. The ballplayer who just has to inject that nefarious substance into his bloodstream to keep up with the competition. The political candidate who can’t resist wiretapping his opponent’s campaign headquarters, even while he’s 20 points up in the polls. The hard-drinking, depressed, bulimic performer who keeps on touring when she should clearly take a rest, see a therapist and go to rehab.
But that just brings us to another paradox, which is that great music tends to come from great suffering. While this is certainly not always the case—not all music is autobiographical or particularly deep—Winehouse herself says in the film that songwriting is her outlet for unburdening herself of her deepest, darkest habits. Indeed, she wonders about, and fears for, those who share her afflictions but don’t have the means of expressing themselves through some artistic medium or other. (A morbidly ironic observation, considering what little good it ended up doing her.)
Her blockbuster 2006 album, Back to Black, came about in the wake of a disastrous relationship and the beginning of a serious drinking problem (followed soon enough by cocaine and heroin), with most of the songs reflecting the toll that those unpleasantries wreaked on her psyche. “Rehab”—her most popular and arguably most accomplished single—reads like straight news reporting, in light of what Amy reveals about its subject.
Could she have generated and maintained that kind of creative energy had she lived a more tranquil existence? In the end, didn’t she need always to be teetering on the edge of oblivion in order to produce the fiery, brilliant output that made her so interesting in the first place?
What a shame that we’ll never know for sure.