Asif Kapadia's sobering Amy Winehouse documentary "Amy" opens with a baby-faced Winehouse, then 14, singing "Happy Birthday" to one of her best friends. Her voice, smoky and soulful, is unmissable. It's one of the last times we see the young singer so unabashedly happy -- at least on film. Despite her massive success, it all goes, decidedly, downhill from there.
"Amy" has plenty of villains. Winehouse's father Mitch, who she so famously referenced in her breakthrough hit "Rehab," shows up in St. Lucia, where she was attempting to get clean, with reality TV cameras in tow. Her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, who introduced her to crack cocaine and other hard drugs, comes across as an enabler in the film, lost in an endless haze of hangovers and his own insecurities. But no villain is as nefarious in "Amy" as our celebrity culture, and the entire tabloid circus that comes with it -- one that continued on after her death from alcohol poisoning on July 23, 2011. Yup, we -- the fans, those of us who may have been intrigued by her downfall -- are not safe from the label of "villain."
Kapadia doesn't set out to glorify Winehouse in "Amy" or to excuse her poor decisions, but he doesn't shy away from telling us that her tragic end could have been prevented -- and perhaps we could have all done our part. We live in a society that glorifies celebrities, especially the ones who self-destruct. As it turns out, that has a lot to do with our own self-esteem.
We Want Our Heroes To Have Flaws...
Heroes are an essential part of our culture, and we treat celebrities as such -- but actually being one can be a double-edged sword.
"The reason we create heroes is that we want role models to look up to," psychologist Dr. Nancy Mramor told MTV News. "We want to have something to aspire to. But the way that these role models are positioned is in a way that they're so perfect and so unrealistic that we can't possibly reach the pedestal that we have these heroes on, and so we’re happy to bring them down so that we can feel better about ourselves."
"It’s one of the reasons for the popularity of the '[Real] Housewives' shows," she added. "We like to see the affluence and the opulence of their homes and their clothes because we like to windowshop and peek at a life that we never really get to see. But we also like to see how dysfunctional they are at the same time so we can feel better about ourselves. And a lot of it is simply bullying."
While Winehouse had a legendary voice -- one that made her a hero to millions, she also had flaws that opened her up to the criticism Mramor spoke of. She suffered from addiction, an illness we, as a society, consider a lifestyle choice -- one that sells paparazzi photos and feeds celebrity gossip. The "Back To Black" singer spent the majority of her short-lived career with a tabloid-fueled target on her back.
"You can say something online about an anonymous person that you wouldn’t be able to say to someone personally," Mramor said. "In a way, we are displacing our anger and our need for bullying onto someone that is unlikely to come back and affect us personally. The only cure for this type of attack on celebrities is just for people to realistically accept themselves, which is not something that we’re encouraged to do in the other things that are set up by the media. So there’s this constant push and pull -- 'I really like this person, I like their music, but wow, I could never be that great, so I have to bring them down to feel better.'"
Winehouse especially became a punching bag for late night hosts -- and audience was only too willing to laugh along. One telling scene from the movie shows a 2008 clip from "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" in which the host jokes about Winehouse "cooking crystal meth." This is the same man who, two years earlier, praised her hit single "Rehab."
Fame, like love, can be a losing game -- especially when people are rooting for you to fail in order to pull themselves up.
...And Amy Definitely Had Flaws
Winehouse never wanted to be famous -- to be in the position to get dragged down. "My music is not on that scale," she said during an early on-camera interview. "I don’t think I’m going to be at all famous. I don’t think I could handle it. I think I'd go mad. I know I'd go mad." It's a terribly foreshadowing moment in the film.
"Whenever there's a major life change, it creates enormous stress in a person's life and you either manage the stress or it takes you down," said Mramor. "Whenever there's a stressor, whenever there’s a major life change, a person is kind of at a Y in the road. They can either use really healthy stress management techniques or they can use unhealthy ones."
The documentary delves into Winehouse's troubles with addiction, alcoholism and bulimia -- the latter two had haunted the singer from an early age. At the 2008 Grammys, after a victorious sweep -- she won five awards, including Best New Artist, Song of the Year and Record of the Year -- she turned to one her of childhood friends and said, "This is so boring without drugs."
Though Kapadia never tries to excuse Winehouse's actions, he does do an excellent job of highlighting how the constant stress of the spotlight, and the relentless camera flashes that followed her, aided in her dependency on alcohol and drugs.
"Becoming famous is not on the Top 10 list of major life changes because it's so rare," Mramor continued. "So there’s very little research about how to deal with it. If somebody gets fired or somebody loses a loved one, we have all kinds of research on how to deal with that. When somebody becomes famous, all we have are the stories that have come before us. There's no research, there's no history, and the cases that have come up have been so sensationalized that we're more interested in what happened than why it happened."
Ones That Were Turned Into Tabloid Fodder
In what might be the most recognizable song in her catalog, Winehouse sings, "They tried to make me go to rehab, I said, 'No, no, no' ... I ain't got the time, and if my daddy thinks I'm fine..." That was inspired by an event that could have saved her life -- an event that was ultimately nixed by her father because he thought she didn't need help. But Winehouse was beginning to spiral out of control.
"One of the biggest issues is the availability of drugs and alcohol to celebrity," said Mramor. "It's just a common thing for celebrity. It’s there, it’s right in front of you and so for a quick fix, it’s something that is offered. It’s like here, here’s a coping mechanism. This goes all the way back to the era of black and white movies. Hollywood actresses were given uppers to keep their energy levels up and diet pills. Because they wanted you to be fresh and on all the time. A lot of celebrities do want to be fresh and on all the time, and it’s right there. If you're not mature and you don’t have really strong parents and a good manager and you’re a young star, you’re just not gonna make it."
After the release of her seminal album Back to Black, Winehouse never stood a chance -- or at least the way the film tells it. Her fate was shaped by those around her. Aside from the childhood friends who begged her to get help, those around her did little to intervene and, in some cases, actually aided in her self-destruction. It became about them and their paychecks and not her.
Of course, not all participants agree with their portrayal in the doc. Unhappy with the way he came across in the movie, Winehouse's father has publicly disassociated himself from the project, calling the film a "disgrace."
It's hard to not feel uncomfortable when you watch Winehouse being stalked by paps, as they zoom in on her dirty face, matted beehive and bloody ballet flats. They were profiting on her illness -- and we were consuming every bit of it. While it may not have seemed cruel at the time, every new photo gave us another reason to gawk at a women who was clearly unwell.
And We Did Nothing To Stop It
After an emotional 128 minutes, "Amy" ends on a haunting image: her body bag, as it's being carted away into an ambulance. Emotional spectators cry on the streets, and we, as an audience, are left with a feeling of overwhelming sadness. How did we let this happen? And why did Winehouse have to pay the ultimate price to finally get treated with respect?
We all contributed to Winehouse's very public demise. We bought the magazines, clicked on the articles, watched the YouTube videos of her slurring her words on stage, laughed at the late night jokes, and yet, when it was all said and done, we mourned the loss of her young life.
"We do idealize people after their death, and part of that is sort of a false idealization, but you know, part of it is a really healthy thing," Mramor said. "We remember the good and the bad kind of slips away. You know, the pain that somebody may have caused you becomes unimportant when you miss them and what you really take away is what you loved about someone, and in the case of Amy Winehouse, you remember her incredible talent."
But if we had thought to remember her raw and remarkable talent then, instead of publicly ridiculing her for her mistakes, she might have had a chance. Sadly, we'll never know.
The only thing we can do now, to truly honor Winehouse's legacy, is to not let it happen to another bright young star. We can start by seeing celebrities for what they really are: people, not heroes. They make mistakes, have faults and stumble from time to time -- just like us. We're just lucky everything we do isn't front-page news.
But more importantly, we need to start valuing our own self-worth. You don't need to bring someone down to feel better about yourself. Doing that only makes you part of the problem. Let's strive to be better. For Amy.