A Most Modern Tragedy: Why We’re All To Blame For The Death Of Amy Winehouse

It's been seven years since Amy Winehouse's death.

It’s impossible to walk away from Amy, director Asif Kapadia’s controversial documentary about the life and death of Amy Winehouse, and not feel the urge to apportion blame. Much of the film is comprised of candid camera-phone footage shot by the singer’s close friends and family, and it provides a new lens through which we can begin to understand a brilliant, complex artist who until now has been shallowly defined by her appearances in the tabloid press. Almost from the opening frame, it’s clear that Amy is the first real, empathetic attempt at understanding her life, but by the time the credits roll, you will feel angrier about – and more complicit in – her death than you ever thought possible. In this quintessentially modern tragedy, there are very few innocent bystanders.

“I was angry, and I wanted the audience to be angry,” says Kapadia, who never met his subject, never saw her perform live, and claims to have entered into the project with only a basic knowledge of her story. “This started off as a film about Amy, but it became a film about how our generation lives. It was important to turn the mirror back on the audience – not just the people around Amy who were making decisions, but the people who wrote about it, the people who consumed it, the people who shared it on Twitter and Facebook. We all let this happen. We are all slightly complicit.”

There’s a lot to process in Amy, but at the film’s core is a single, deeply unsettling question: how did the happy, healthy and outrageously gifted 14-year-old glimpsed in its opening moments become the traumatised figure we all recognise from her final months? There are no easy answers, but by the end, the coroner’s verdict of death by misadventure doesn’t seem to tell the whole story: this was death by a thousand cuts, an agonisingly drawn-out demise of cumulative influences, appetites and mistakes. As Nick Shymansky, Amy’s first manager, says more than once during our interview, “The whole thing was just a fucking disaster. In the entire Amy Winehouse saga, from start to finish, there were no winners. Everybody lost.”


Some lost more than others, however, and Amy most of all. Shymansky was a 19-year-old talent scout for pop impresario Simon Fuller when he first started managing and developing Winehouse, who was only three years his junior. He remembers her as bright and funny, but also easily bored, someone who required constant stimulation. “I look back now and I realise that, after the final tour of [debut album] ‘Frank’, it was the first time in six or seven years when she wasn’t really active,” he says. “On that tour, there had been a ‘What next?’ vibe coming from her, and she’d definitely started to drink more. Then in February 2005, her nan fell ill, she met Blake [Fielder-Civil], and I’d never seen such change in a human being. All of a sudden I was getting calls in the middle of the night – she’d be absolutely fucked, no idea where she was, asking me to come and get her. I’d be driving around Camden to see which pubs still had their lights on. She knew she couldn’t control it.”

The illness, and subsequent death, of Amy’s grandmother Cynthia – “the guardian,” as Shymansky describes her – was the trigger for many of the self-destructive behaviours that would eventually take her life (including the return of her bulimia, from which she’d suffered as a teenager, unnoticed by her family). After Blake Fielder-Civil decided to break off their relationship and return to his old girlfriend, things escalated to the point where Shymansky was forced to confront Amy about what was happening. Famously, he tried and failed to talk her into going to rehab. “I’d taken her to the clinic and I’d spoken to her father, who was completely behind the idea, and the only thing she wanted was to look him in the eye and hear him say it,” he sighs. “So I drove her over to Mitch’s place, called him before I left, and he completely assured me that he backed the plan. Then when we got there, he did the total fucking opposite.”

It was a watershed moment in Amy’s life: a last and sadly wasted opportunity to deal with her problems before the world wanted a piece of her. Instead, she chose to focus her energies – and her anguish – into making a second album, but the extraordinary success it achieved would ensure that things could only get worse. ‘Back To Black’, released in late 2006, was a masterpiece, but it does make you question what masterpieces are really worth: if she’d gone to rehab instead of making the record, there’s a good chance she’d still be alive today.

Kapadia hopes his film will force the music industry to re-examine its handling of young, troubled talents. But as Darcus Beese – the former A&R head (and now president) of Amy’s label, Island Records – points out, “there’s no handbook for what to do when your artist gets addicted. Record companies have a responsibility to their artists, of course, but the conversation has to – – start with the family. You can sit here and wish none of it ever happened – what if we’d never found her? What if she didn’t go and make ‘Back To Black’? – but I would never tell an artist that writing songs would be therapeutic for their addiction. The only conclusion I could come to was that if she was in the studio, she wasn’t at The Good Mixer. All you can do is hopefully try and keep them focused, but obviously that wasn’t good enough.”

In the wake of ‘Back To Black’, the press and the public weren’t the only ones who wanted a piece of Amy Winehouse. Blake Fielder-Civil soon re-emerged, having sold the story of their affair to a tabloid newspaper in which he boasted – not untruthfully – that the album was written about him. It was a transparent attempt at worming his way back into Amy’s life, and even though everyone around her told her to forget about him, she couldn’t, and it worked. Soon afterwards, they were married. Shortly after that, he went to prison for 12 months for armed robbery. In his absence, Amy began to sink towards her nadir. As her musical director Dale Davis puts it, “Blake was really only around for a short period of time, but he had a huge impact. I saw them get on well and I saw them have very tough times. But in some respects, she was singing her way into Blake’s arms every night.”


In the court of public opinion, Blake Fielder-Civil was convicted a long time ago: he’s the opportunistic freeloader who introduced Winehouse to crack and heroin, possibly with the intent of ensuring she became dependent on them and, by extension, him. Case closed. Yet that’s not how the makers of Amy saw him. “Somewhere in there, there’s a suburban kid who has issues of his own, who came down to London, did whatever he had to do to survive, and somewhere along the line got hooked on drugs,” says Kapadia, who was surprised by how open and honest Fielder-Civil was during their interview. “I spent a lot of time with Blake, and I became quite fond of him,” adds James Gay-Rees, the film’s producer. “A lot of Amy’s friends told us that while he maybe wasn’t their cup of tea, you can’t dispute the fact that they were very serious about each other. Their relationship deserves respect. It was a very intense, very real love affair.”

“Everything got dramatic and messy from the second he got involved,” says Nick Shymansky. “He admits that he got her into drugs, although I think he introduced her to them much earlier than he claims. Whether it was completely manipulative or whether that’s just what she was drawn to, no one will ever know. What I do know is that she was drawn to something dangerous in him, and she went from being totally unexperimental to being totally into it. But it’s not uncommon for a young girl to meet a bit of a wrong ‘un in Camden and get into trouble. It’s quite possible that if she hadn’t found Blake, she would’ve found someone like him. I can’t ever like the guy, but at the end of the day, what really came out of it all for him?”

Shymansky makes a good point. Under the terms of their 2009 divorce – which both parties had to be talked into by their parents – Blake received no money, and was left with nothing but a serious drug addiction and a tattered reputation. You need only to compare the footage of the swaggering, cocksure character at the start of the film with the hushed, haunted-sounding interview he gave the filmmakers more recently to come to the view that, whatever crimes Fielder-Civil is guilty of, he’ll likely spend the rest of his life paying for them.

Amy doesn’t attempt to exonerate Blake, though it certainly humanises him. He is reportedly satisfied with how their relationship was handled, and Gay-Rees believes that participating in the film “has kind of made him reassess everything: he thought he’d dealt with it, but maybe he hadn’t”.

Less happy with his portrayal is Amy’s father, Mitch Winehouse. “Mitch wanted a very different movie, and that’s his prerogative,” says James Gay-Rees. “It’s a shame he doesn’t like it, but the most important thing for us was that Amy came out of the movie well, not for it to be a 90-minute advert for the foundation.”

Suffice to say, Mitch Winehouse’s problems with Amy run a little deeper than that. As the executor of his daughter’s estate and chairman of the Amy Winehouse Foundation, Mitch’s cooperation was vital: the film simply couldn’t have been made without the rights to her music. After being shown an early cut, however, he got solicitors involved to have what he calls “basic untruths” removed from the film, and has since disassociated himself from the entire project. “This film does have an agenda,” he insists. “We started to realise when her friends started walking out of interviews that the questions were leading ones. Often that was about her relationship with me – how did we get on? Plenty of people told them we had a strong relationship, but they kept asking. They obviously needed a villain and they found me and made sure the footage and interviews they used fitted that view.”

In the film, Mitch Winehouse is portrayed as an absentee father, whose divorce from his wife had a dramatic effect on Amy’s behaviour. He seems to enjoy the limelight a little too much, particularly for someone whose daughter was in such a perilous state, and often appears to act more out of his own self-interest than any concern for Amy’s. Yet while everyone I talk to understands why he is so angry about the film, none except Mitch himself go so far as to call its depiction of events inaccurate. “Maybe he just wasn’t ready for the story the filmmakers decided to tell,” suggests Darcus Beese. As for the footage that was removed from earlier cuts, Kapadia insists that, “if there are things that aren’t in there, it’s only because we couldn’t prove them”.

“The film is totally fair on Mitch,” says Nick Shymansky. “Everyone close to Amy had their own reality, and what these filmmakers have done is talk to everyone about theirs and hopefully show the closest thing to what happened. I don’t think anyone’s got the right to go into the intricacies of how Mitch must be feeling, but it’s a totally accurate portrayal of what was going on. He made some bad decisions – maybe by accident, maybe consciously, I don’t know.”

Some of those decisions, such as siding with his daughter against Shymansky on the subject of rehab, are completely understandable: all parents are occasionally guilty of letting their hearts rule their heads. Others, like turning up to her island hideaway in St Lucia with a camera crew in tow, are harder to rationalise (Mitch has always insisted he did this with Amy’s permission, and that the film deliberately focuses on one small argument they had there, instead of showing the “hundreds of hours of us laughing, joking and singing together”). Still, watching Amy, you’re forced to ask yourself: what are you supposed to do when your daughter is the most famous, most scrutinised woman in the country and her life is spiralling dangerously out of control? In such an extraordinary situation, is it really so surprising that Mitch got things wrong?

“We made mistakes,” he admits. “We had to learn from trial and error and the conflicting advice we took. We tried everything – interventions, rehab, detox, raging, shouting, cajoling her. Some friends chose tough love and cut her off, but we’re her family, we couldn’t leave her. I had distant family members calling to say we should lock her in a room and not let her out until it was out of her system. Some people think that’s all it takes.”

One thing Mitch absolutely refutes, however, is the suggestion that there was some kind of sinister conspiracy between himself and Raye Cosbert to force Amy into playing her shambolic final show in Belgrade, in June 2011, for their own financial gain. “Raye and I spoke to her about that tour, saying we didn’t think she should do it,” he says. “She was insistent, though, and you couldn’t stop Amy doing anything she wanted to do. She was a grown woman, these were her decisions. It’s a ridiculous suggestion that she was being forced to do anything, especially for money. Her PA, for instance, told them that she had walked on and off the plane to Serbia willingly, but the impression the film gives is that she was somehow forced to do it, or even that she was unconscious and put on a plane. It’s ludicrous.”

Yet if the mistakes of those around Amy were made from places of desperation, or naivety, or even cynicism, what can be said of our own ghoulish appetite for watching the car-crash unfold? Some of the film’s most shocking footage is also the kind of thing we’ve all seen a hundred times but never thought twice about – comedians, like Graham Norton or Jay Leno, cracking jokes about a famous young woman with a life-threatening illness, and being met with bellows of laughter from their studio audiences. In an interview given the year before her death, Norton even described Amy as a “useful punchline”, two words which tell you everything about the media’s belief in its own impunity and lack of concern for her wellbeing. “An individual has to take responsibility for their actions, but people can also drive nails into the coffin,” says Darcus Beese. “There are people who’ve spoken very highly of Amy since she died, who’ve attended the foundation’s charity galas and fundraisers, but who were saying awful things about her on TV when she was really ill.”

Amy wasn’t the first (or last) celebrity to be harassed by the paparazzi, but she was one of the first – and certainly the most visible – casualties of the social media age. ‘Back to Black’ exploded at around the same time as Facebook, Twitter and the iPhone, innovations which fundamentally altered how we consume our news. The photographers who camped out on her doorstep day and night in the hopes of capturing her at her most desperate were only there to satisfy our morbid curiosity: if we’d stopped clicking and sharing, they would have turned their attentions elsewhere.

“If you look at the organisation outside where she lived, where she’d get in and out of cars, the paparazzi were allowed to get brutally close,” says Nick Shymansky. “There are moments in the film where she’s at the height of her fame and you see her walking towards her car, but her team have already walked off to theirs. It was shoddy. At the same time, it’s this infatuation with getting up people’s skirts, or seeing someone vomit, or punching a paparazzi – you’ve got to ask, why is there a demand for this stuff? Why do people want to see that?”

“People watching the film tend to feel a bit guilty,” notes Asif Kapadia. “One reading of it is that we all got into this idea that we could bully this girl, or join in laughing at her, because she wouldn’t answer back and didn’t have anyone around her who seemed to care. We never stopped to think about what we were doing to her. This is a girl who had a mental illness, yet every comedian, every TV host, they all did it with such ease, without even thinking. We all got carried away with it.”

The controversy over Mitch Winehouse’s portrayal in Amy threatens to overshadow this point, which is the real crux of Kapadia’s film. Amy Winehouse was a victim of many things – her own self-destructive streak included – but first and foremost, she was a victim of our toxic relationship with celebrity. Fame has become a bloodsport, one whose victims we regard with all the sympathy a pack of dogs feel for the fox they’ve just torn to pieces. At some point, we stopped seeing Amy as a human being, afflicted with the same anxieties and insecurities we all possess, and started seeing her as fair game.

“If you’re going to blame anyone in this situation, you can blame everyone – me included,” says Dale Davis. “I always felt that I did the best I could, but in many ways, I failed. Ultimately, I can say that we all made mistakes with Amy, and they were big mistakes, because she’s not here anymore.” For four years, those closest to Amy Winehouse have had to face up to the things they got wrong. When, you wonder, will the rest of us finally start doing the same?

Amy is out now – find a screening near you and book your tickets here.

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