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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


Directed by Asif Kapadia (2015)

  Love and Mercy
Directed by Bill Pohlad (2014)


Like she’s never heard it before, Amy Winehouse smiles a nervous, surprised smile as she finishes recording Back to Black.

“It’s a bit sad at the end, innit?” she says. As is Amy, sad at the end, inevitable, given Winehouse’s fame, her tortured genius, her sensitivity, her self-destructive impulses, her errant love. We know the story. We know it too well.

But at that moment, when she catches herself crying that attenuated dying fall, “black… black… black”, surprised by her own fate, the gap that opens in her self, when she is not quite that self, but also another, allows us to glimpse the flicker of the dialectic, a chance of a different ending. It didn’t have to be like that.

Amy is Asif Kapadia’s follow-up hisshock hit Senna (rather than Ayrton, he being a bloke and a racing driver, I suppose). Like Senna, it’s a montage of existing footage. Along with voiceovers from Winehouse’s friends, family and colleagues, it’s all stitched together in a familiar narrative, the tragic trajectory of the suffering artist.

We see much of Winehouse before she was famous, when she was ordinary, if a little boisterous and attention-seeking. But even at 15 she was bulimic and didn’t keep a secret of it, telling her mum she’d discovered a brilliant new way of dieting. Her mum ignored it, hoping it would go away.

It was a symptom of someone seeking control, trying to write the narrative of themselves, a common problem that in the hothouse of the pop world where Winehouse found herself, or rather lost herself, warped into something sensational and terrible.

Her songs stuck uncomfortably close to the truth, truth in the sense of the actual stuff that happened to her, or at least the stuff revealed by Amy. This is supposed to be therapeutic, a way of distancing yourself from the bad things that do your head in. But Winehouse’s songs seemed to dog her. Great songs, of course, but a little too literal, and in the distorting mirror room of the media they reflected back on her in a kind of feedback loop.

Alcohol and drugs were an obvious escape route, a way for Winehouse to get away from the pressures on her but also, in a curious way, self-affirming against the attempts of others to define her. Of course, her drunkenness is appropriated and joked about cruelly - Amy the Inebriate Woman – but psychoactive substances are a way of taking control by deliberately giving up control.

During one of her periods of sobriety, she tells a friend “it’s so boring without drugs”. When we’ve got over our shock it might be an idea to try and understand what “boring” might mean here.

Tony Bennett, who we see working on a duet with her, seemed too much in awe of Winehouse’s talent to give her any advice. Had he done so, he tells us, he would have told her that“life will tell you how to live it, if you live long enough”.

There were no shortcuts. She just had to hang in there, somehow. As Brian Wilson did.

The Beach Boy is the subject of another musical biopic Love & Mercy, which I would prescribe as a cheery antidote to the frankly depressing Amy.In short, it’s the old tale of Beach Boy meets girl, Beach Boy loses girl, Beach Boy finds girl again.

We see young Wilson (Paul Dano) struggling to conceive his vision for the ground-breaking Pet Sounds album against the pressures of a pop industry that just wants more of the same to sell, interspersed with old Wilson (John Cusack) struggling for independence against  tyrannical, overmedicating shrink DrEugene Landy(the excellent Paul Giamatti).

He’s rescued to sing again by glamorous Melinda Ledbetter from the car showroom(Elizabeth Banks), and it all makes for a funny, uplifting story with some delightfully obvious symbolism.

Like when young Wilson is trying to get the other Beach Boys to join him in the deep end of the pool and, in case you didn’t get it, one of them declares “we’re too shallow”. Or when old Wilson has locked himself in a recording studio for a tryst with Melinda and Landy appears menacingly behind the mixing desk to order him to “come into the control room”.

It’s wonderful stuff and you come out whistling the tunes, even while Winehouse is crying somewhere deeper inside your head.

July 17, 2015


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