Access Institute | What is it about Amy Winehouse?
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27 Aug What is it about Amy Winehouse?

Every so often a cultural event comes along that shines a spotlight on and stimulates a public conversation about mental health. The release of Asif Kapadia’s documentary film “Amy,” which follows the meteoric rise and tragic fall of Amy Winehouse has sparked just that.

In San Francisco we have the added privilege of viewing, simultaneously, the exhibit sponsored by the Contemporary Jewish Museum: Amy Winehouse, A Family Portrait. These two events (which couldn’t have more distinct points of view), when considered together, highlight the continued difficulty we face in having open and thoughtful conversations about serious mental illness. But the moment also presents an opportunity to move beyond the casting of blame, shame and denial, which seems to be our instant reaction when we talk about mental health.

The documentary immerses the audience in Amy’s early life and musical talent through family home videos and rare footage provided by her first manager, Nick Shymansky. Seeing Amy as a youth in her first performances gives us chills. Everything we come to know about her later is powerfully on display: her rare talent and genius, her sensitivity and vulnerability, the raw honesty of her lyrics, her charisma, the emotional power of her voice, her aggressive streak, and her musical savvy- the artful way she pulls from rich musical traditions (jazz, soul, R&B) as she creates her unique style. Just as quickly, we witness signs of trouble. As a youth she struggled with her father’s affair, his subsequent absence, speaks about her depression and shows us her binge drinking. Her mother reports that Amy came to her as a young teen and was proud to tell her of her new “diet” based on vomiting her meals, her first admission of bulimia, a behavior that stayed with her until her death.

Her lyrics also tell of deep struggles and pain.  She speaks openly about her use of her art as an attempt to work out her inner demons, in an attempt to find meaning in her pain and make empathic connections with others.

I’m nurturing, I just wanna do my thing
And I’ll take the wrong man as naturally as I sing
And I’ll save my tears for uncovering my fears
For behavioural patterns that stick over the years 

– Amy Winehouse “What is it about men”

The film works to stake out a neutral position, one that becomes harder to maintain as we watch her life and career begin to unravel. Ultimately, we find ourselves identified with Amy’s friends who make multiple attempts to help steer her to safety and stability. From this perspective it’s easy to start playing the blame game: her parents for failing to protect her, her managers for exploiting her, her boyfriend for getting her hooked on drugs, the paparazzi for chasing her down, and the media for feeding on her public collapse. Conversations following the movie have taken up the case of “who is most to blame.” These conversations indicate that the film missed an opportunity to open up a discussion about difficultly that friends and family members face when a loved one is not able to take care of herself, when poor and ultimately self-destructive choices stem from mental illness and substance abuse. Rather than asking who is to blame, might we ask what can we do to help?

The museum show portrays Amy’s life from the perspective of her family relationship and her roots in Jewish London. The exhibit also gives us a rare look into her personal life and her various influences: photos, records, clothing, writings and family reminiscences.  While the show conveys the love and respect fitting of a memorial it leaves out any mention of her darker struggles or how she died, so it perpetuates the denial and shame that are still too often associated with mental illness and substance abuse. That denial, troubling in its own right, also robs the show of opportunities to explore deeper themes. For example, the classic photo on display of her in full tattoo from a Rolling Stone cover which the curators pulled for its prominent tattoo of her Nana. But what of the other tattoos, including “Blake” tattooed over her heart, that hint of a murkier story? Their meaning is unexplored.

Am I being too harsh? I don’t think so. Certainly weaving in the difficult topics of bulimia, depression and substance abuse would have been a challenge for the curators, but isn’t that a job of curators as cultural arbiters- to help the public digest thorny and confusing topics?

The film and the exhibit, like the life they explore, leave us with more questions than answers. And while neither successfully facilitates the more thoughtful conversations that we need to have about mental health, they may in the end assist us in that advocacy.

-Bart Magee, PhD​

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