The Battle Over Amy Winehouse's Memory Continues

Two documentaries released on the 10th anniversary of the singer's death only add to the cynical exploitation she suffered during her lifetime

Oron Shamir
Oron Shamir
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Amy Winehouse. A decade has passed and still people are using Winehouse for their own ends and needs.
Oron Shamir
Oron Shamir
  • Movie name:
    Reclaiming Amy
  • Director:
    Marina Parker
  • Year:
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July 23 was the 10th anniversary of the death of British singer Amy Winehouse. Some sought to mark the date by listening to her songs, sharing in the memory and the sorrow. Others, such as her producer Mark Ronson, expressed a certain degree of regret. But there were others who decided to mark the decade since her untimely demise by talking about themselves.

On the actual anniversary date, two British documentaries – it would be a mistake to call them “films” – were released whose aim was seemingly conscience-clearing, self-promotion, or both.

The BBC-produced “Reclaiming Amy,” directed by Marina Parker, is difficult to categorize as a film for reasons artistic, moral and even technical (it has a 59-minute running time, while a feature film runs at least an hour). It’s easy to see who is behind this work, which begins with a narration by her mother, Janis Collins.

There’s no mistaking her intonation: she’s reading from a script. She’s talking, she says, in an effort to share with the public how she remembers her daughter. But the emotionally detached recitation sounds like a hostage reading a prepared message, with the kidnapper being father Mitch Winehouse, who is tired of being the bad guy in the story.

He’s decided to give his side of the story and perhaps settle accounts with Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning 2015 documentary “Amy,” which portrays cabdriver Mitch as a negative and destructive influence on the singer-songwriter.

“Reclaiming Amy” is filled with excuses for why it was produced and released at this moment in time. Among other things, it reveals Collins’ deteriorating health, which both affects her body and her memory. Toward the end, the parents talk about a foundation they established in Winehouse’s name to help women with addictions.

It also includes an interview where the mother expresses her appreciation in front of the camera while the father cries crocodile tears. The final half hour of “Reclaiming Amy” is devoted to the singer’s own addictions to drugs and alcohol, which eventually led to her death at age 27. It also deals with other issues, like mental health, bulimia and destructive relationships. It’s as if to hint with the gentleness of a battering ram that no one is to blame for Winehouse’s death from accidental alcohol poisoning: it was the singer’s predilection for addiction that killed her.

Winehouse Sr. absolves himself of any blame for pushing his daughter to perform when she was at rock bottom. He portrays himself as a victim of Kapadia’s documentary, which he says ruined his life, and insists on refuting its allegations one by one. It is worth noting that he manages her estate and inherited her money.

He wants to show that his daughter had an ordinary, even happy, childhood growing up in north London. With the help of family photos and school report cards, he wants the viewer to see her as his little girl, not just a troubled celebrity.

The father doesn’t place himself front and center of the story. Instead, he presents a cast of kindly characters – the father and his current partner; Amy’s stepbrother Michael, who talks of her admiringly; three close friends, who remember things slightly differently than the way they appeared in the tabloids.

At a certain stage, the parents agree that the hardest thing for them is the media circus that has persisted around their daughter’s death. That, of course, doesn’t include the production and selling of “Reclaiming Amy.” It appears that the stress is on the first word (“Reclaiming”) and not on the second. In other words, it’s all about them, not about her.

Winehouse’s fans may derive some satisfaction from the compassionate and loving way she is portrayed and from the home videos the documentary utilizes. They can also take some pleasure from historical moments such as when Winehouse wins a Grammy Award and hugs her mother – the love and pain are beyond any doubt. But it is doubtful they will gain any new or interesting insights on Winehouse the artist and performer.

Another disappointment

Among the clips from interviews sprinkled throughout “Reclaiming Amy,” one in particular stands out: the heartbreaking moment when Winehouse reveals that she wants children. She was never able to realize that desire, though she did have a goddaughter: Dionne Bromfield, the daughter of a close friend from the Jewish community.

The goddaughter has grown up and she, too, has decided the time had come to tell all. The result, “Amy Winehouse & Me: Dionne’s Story,” is more like a filmed article than an actual film.

Bromfield knew Winehouse from age 6 thanks to the friendship that was formed between her mother, Julie Din, and the star. Encouraged by Winehouse, Bromfield also became a singer. She was the first singer to sign with Winehouse’s own record label, Lioness, and the last to appear with her on stage – at Camden’s Roundhouse, three days before Winehouse’s death.

Bromfield is still a singer, but it’s hard to call her a star. In her silence-breaking testimony, produced by MTV, she talks for 45 minutes about the friendship between her and the iconic singer, who became her patron from a young age. Perhaps Winehouse fans will find solace in a life that was touched by Winehouse’s. However, as a work in its own right, “Amy Winehouse & Me” is another disappointment.

Like Winehouse’s parents, Bromfield also chooses to talk with strangers about addiction, show off souvenirs from the times she spent with her godmother, and open up to the camera voyeuristically but voluntarily – which only increases the sense of embarrassment for the viewer. She comes across as an eloquent, rational and graceful young woman, but also as someone who felt the need to talk about herself and be at the center of events.

Why is it interesting to hear where she was when Winehouse won a Grammy, unless she was sitting next to her at the ceremony? What does her dramatic narration add apart from cheapening the documentary format to something that resembles a forgotten episode of a reality show? And the less said about the film’s style and content, the better.

A decade has passed and still people are using Winehouse for their own ends and needs. That includes the celebrated documentary that carries her name and won an Oscar. In the past year, other films have been released, including “Amy Winehouse: The Price of Fame” and “Amy Winehouse: A Final Goodbye.” There are other examples of opportunism by those willing to feed a hungry public and earn a few pennies along the way – Winehouse’s parents, for instance, are talking about trying to release some of the singer’s early, pre-fame compositions that were recorded on now-corrupted CDs. It’s much like the media, which tries every year to squeeze out another perspective, another click from her fan base.

All this despite the fact that Winehouse’s death came after the people around her let her down, while the British media hounded her in a way that endangered her life.

Another film about her won’t change any of the past, but it can score points in the posthumous battle for public opinion. The chosen weapon is the documentary, and in a world where another life story of a musician or singer is debuting on screens every month, you don’t need a crystal ball to see yet another one coming in the form of a Hollywood biopic. Just don’t tell us that this time it’s for her or her memory.

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