The Movie "AMY" has been much more successful than most people predicted it would be. I saw it the week it opened because I've long been a fan of her music and closely followed the painfully sad trajectory of her life.
When most people think of Amy Winehouse, they don't think of the pretty girl from the UK who loved Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Dinah Washington. Most people don't remember the powerhouse, supernatural voice or the performer, who in her own words, became "a black man in a girl's body" when she went onstage. No, when people hear the name "Amy Winehouse" they have an automatic "go to" response - Rehab - and the resounding "No No No." Their minds conjure up the multitude of tabloid images that captured the last few years of her life. They remember photos that became evidence of years substance abuse and YouTube videos of alcohol infused erratic behavior and performances where she could barely stand. They might even replay the news footage in their minds of her body being carried out of her home on a coroner's stretcher.
I won't show any of those photographs here, I don't think that those years, ravaged by the devastating cruelty of addiction, should define Amy Winehouse, her legacy or her life. We all know how that story ended. We all know about the whole Blake thing. Hopefully by now though, everyone is on the same page about her talent. Her musical genius is undisputed and well respected by anyone who knows music, and to say that she was one of the most talented singer/songwriters of her generation, or perhaps of any generation, isn't an exaggeration. Throughout this post, I've included a few videos of some of Amy's performances that I believe best show her talent, in case you aren't convinced.
Amy Winehouse "Take The Box" Wembley Arena 2004 - 21 years old
I'm more interested in the reasons and thoughts behind the transformation of that young girl with the guitar. When Amy appeared on Never Mind The Buzzcocks, a British TV show in 2009, the host, Simon Amstell, made a joke about her drinking and afterwards, when he saw that she didn't take it too well, he said, "We used to be so close, " and Amy replied, "We were close" and after stroking his face says, "she's dead." Then, when he goes on to comment about wanting to bring back the "old amy" she says again, defiantly, "NO..she's dead."
So what propelled a young, talented musician to go from being a girl who seemed only interested in music and unconcerned with fashion, to become an instant worldwide fashion icon? After Black to Black was released, Amy's new look became one of the most recognizable in the world. People debated as to whether or not she deserved to be an icon, fashion magazines featured her style, and young girls worldwide copied her look. The new Amy even inspired Karl Lagerfeld to have Chanel models wear beehives in a 2008 runway show.
That girl with a guitar wanted to be known for her music. Her voice was so unique and had such a genuine tone and quality that she was confident in her ability to produce beautiful music, it was a part of her DNA. But being famous was another story. When you are famous, it's not just your music that's on display - the world wants a piece of your soul. Amy's childhood friend Juliette Ashby once said;
"When we were young teenagers she wanted to be a roller waitress, a writer or a comedian. Fame wasn't an incentive for her. Music was.."
Amy Winehouse "Teach me Tonight" (Hootenanny, 2004)
So why did the old Amy have to die? Maybe an already insecure girl, who suffered from bulimia (and maybe a little ADHD?), and enjoyed getting high and partying with her friends, simply couldn't handle the side effects of fame. Though she was confident in her musical ability, maybe she wasn't so confident in who she really was. No longer playing in her preferred venue of small clubs, and no longer simply admired for her talent, she was forced to perform a different kind of stage. The brutal stage of social media, paparazzi, talk shows, and tabloids that followed her every move was more than she could handle.
I never met Amy Winehouse but I believe her style metamorphosis allowed her to present another version of herself to the public, keeping her genuine self private. Many of Amy's friends and colleagues have mentioned Amy's remarkable intelligence. So to think that Amy's style was haphazard or an accident is to underestimate who she was. Just as Michael Jackson carefully created his gloved hand or ankle length pants, Amy was in control of her style and it was she who decided that the old Amy had to die. So the new Amy's style became a physical manifestation of the things that she loved the most in life.
1. Innocence & Romance - Amy loved the idea of all or nothing romance. She loved the songs that were about total abandonment for love and was inspired by 50's and 60's girl groups like The Ronettes and the theatrical style of their performances. The juxtaposition of the style of an innocent musical era mixed with her own, written from a place of pain and loss became an important trademark.Even her concert stage was reminiscent of vintage music, and the Amy Winehouse beehive became one of her most recognizable style elements. She used to say that the more insecure she felt, the higher her beehive would be teased.
2. Drama - Amy loved old movies and was a fan of Elizabeth Taylor. Her eyes had that Cleopatra cat-like drama that Liz wore so well! She could hide whatever her eyes might have revealed behind that thick, black liner.
The Day She Came to Dingle - Amy Winehouse "Love is a Losing Game" live on Other Voices, 2006 - Ireland
3. Love- Amy loved people. She was very close to her grandmother, Cynthia and many people say that losing her was the beginning of Amy's troubles. She had approximately 14 tattoos, many of which were symbols that reminded her of the people she loved. They were mostly vintage artwork including the one Cynthia. Even her familiar head scarves might have been a tribute to Cynthia as a young woman in the 1940's.
Amy Winehouse and Paul Weller Don't Go To Strangers 2006
One of my favorites - Amy Winehouse singing a cover of Donny Hathaway's "More Than You'll Ever Know" at De La Semaine on September 15, 2007
4. Another time - Vintage style short dresses replaced the old Amy's simple jeans and shirts. The stage dresses all conjured up images of different decades. She loved Jazz singers like Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington and the times they represented. She said many times that she was born too late and her dresses, though modern and updated, definitely brought back memories of another time.
Amy Winehouse and Tony Bennett "Body and Soul" 2011
Amy Winehouse only held on to the new Amy image for a short time, before it started to become a caricature of the original design. It protected her for a time, but as the addictions became stronger, the beehive became messier as the wall of style crumbled and left her in ruins. Then the world unfairly tried to make the whole of who Amy was nothing more than a puddle of mistakes and bad choices.
The world should have all been gentler, kinder, and more compassionate to Amy Winehouse. As a mother myself, I sometimes think about Amy's mother, Janis, who, I'm sure, could always see the real Amy underneath the facade, and I wish I could tell her that there are people who know that there was more to Amy than talent and a beehive. She was somebody's little girl and she was loved. Toward the end, beyond the well publicized tragedies, there were glimpses of her former talent re-emerging, including her duet with Tony Bennett. I like to believe that if she had lived long enough to get well, a new, better Amy would have been resurrected from the ashes. She wouldn't have been as much of an iconic fashion idol as the invented Amy, or as innocent as the old Amy, and she might have not been as huge of a superstar, but she would have been Amy, once again. Or perhaps, for the very first time. Sadly, we will never have the opportunity to know for sure.