July 2015

Arts & Letters

All too soon

By Luke Davies

Musicians on film in Asif Kapadia’s ‘Amy’, Bill Pohlad’s ‘Love & Mercy’ and Mia Hansen-Løve’s ‘Eden’

“She didn’t really know how to be that thing that she had been pushed to become,” says Yasiin Bey (aka rapper and producer Mos Def) of singer Amy Winehouse. “Pushed to become”: he’s speaking not of the talented artist – Winehouse didn’t need much pushing to nurture her talents – but of the talented artist in an intricate death-grip with the machinery of fame. Asif Kapadia’s documentary Amy (in national release 2 July) shows with a cool, measured eye how Winehouse, a troubled and sensitive young woman, was crushed by that machinery, in the first great celebrity train wreck of the 21st century.

At the height of her fame and in a rare sober period, just days after she won five Grammys in 2008, Winehouse was staying at the same hotel as Bey and knocked at his door. She seemed lonely and frail, and given her public struggles and the news of her being sober, Bey was surprised that she started taking drugs as she sat with him. This is someone trying to disappear, he thought.

She did just that, in a savage public glare. Only a few years earlier, when she was still bright-eyed and beginning to attract attention, an interviewer had asked her about fame. “If I really thought I was famous,” she said, apparently with complete sincerity, “I’d fucking go top myself. Because it’s frightening.” And she believed – naively, in retrospect – that sincerity would be all she needed to protect her. “The more people see of me,” she says, “the more they’ll realise that all I’m good for is making tunes. So leave me alone and I’ll do it! I will do the music.”

A young Brian Wilson, obsessing more and more about the songs that would make up the Beach Boys’ iconic album Pet Sounds (1966) – and before his own appetite for destruction had fully kicked in – felt similarly conflicted about that fulcrum where public meets private. In Bill Pohlad’s uneven biopic Love & Mercy (in national release), as the rest of the band head to Japan on tour, Wilson (played as a young man by Paul Dano) begs off, assuring them he’ll be much more valuable tinkering alone in the studio than prancing on a stage. “You don’t need me standing up there looking like a jerk,” he tells the band. (We’ve already seen him have a panic attack on a plane.) Japan’s loss turns out to be the world’s gain, for Wilson writes ‘God Only Knows’ and ‘Good Vibrations’, which Wilson’s first wife describes as “Brian’s pocket symphony to God”.

For Amy Winehouse, something of an old-school jazz classicist in a world that prefers its public sacrifices to be a little more baroque and burlesque, the problem was insufferable. Her parents afforded her no real structure. She was on antidepressants by 13 or 14. On moving out to her first share house she relished the simpler freedoms, such as smoking weed all day.

She was just warming up. Later, she sang, “Now my destructive side / Has grown a mile wide.” She found Blake Fielder-Civil, her husband, her partner in crime, one of several unpleasant male narcissists we meet in Amy. At his best, Blake comes across as an idiot in a hat. (Later, he becomes more overtly a scoundrel.) But no one comes close to Winehouse’s father, Mitch, for sheer bloody-minded self-interest. As her first hospitalisation looms, during a time of catastrophic freefall, when everyone agrees she must cancel upcoming tour dates, it’s Mitch who steps heroically in. “She doesn’t need to go to rehab,” he tells her managers. “She’s fine.”

Nick Shymansky, one of the seemingly non-exploitative males scattered through the film, stopped managing Winehouse partly because he no longer wished to enable a career that would cause her disintegration. Of that first cancelled rehab visit, Shymansky fantasises about how things might have turned out otherwise. “She’d have had a chance to have been dealt with by professionals before the world wanted a piece of her,” he says.

It didn’t just want a piece; it wanted all the pieces, and it wanted them shredded. The abundance of archival material available to Kapadia is itself testament of the intense focus under which Winehouse – already so clearly unwell – found herself cowering. Amy has a chilling lucidity, in no small measure due to Kapadia’s methodology. It has a plain style and moves at a steady pace, there’s no salacious, tabloid treatment, and it doesn’t attempt to analyse the deeper nature of the tabloid plague – this new-normal world of hyper-saturated media gone feral. It shows us the fangs, certainly, and this makes the film riveting at times, albeit horrifying. But it doesn’t spend time asking about the wolves. Its loyalty is to Winehouse and the gliding arc of her tragedy, from life to early death. Above all, it is a terribly sad film. Winehouse is human, and funny, and sweet, and weirdly otherworldly onstage, before she descends to being “someone trying to disappear” in plain sight.

Kapadia’s particular stroke of genius as a documentarian lies in his choice never to use talking-head interviews. (He does this in his excellent 2010 documentary Senna, too.) He records them, and they operate as voice-over at times, but he only ever uses existing interviews, or archival and paparazzi footage, as his visual content. So while the film’s narrative is tightly constructed, and the craft of that is impressive, visually it’s far looser. Kapadia confronts our participation in the media circus by forcing us to engage with its “victim” as a complex, multi-layered human being; we understand that by watching and consuming the titillations of the celebrity hunt, we become deeply implicated in a culture of cruelty.

In Amy, the cruelty reaches its nadir with Mitch, her father. At the height of her insane wealth and fame, Winehouse flees to the Caribbean island of St Lucia, ostensibly to do some recording away from the paparazzi’s lenses, but also to get away from the heroin and crack. Mitch shows up, with a camera crew. He’s making a documentary, My Daughter Amy. We see him trying to get a rise out of Amy, as his cameras roll. “Dad, you want money?” says Amy, uncomfortably. “I’ll give you money. Why are you doing your life story? Which is really my life story.”

In Love & Mercy, much is made too of Brian Wilson’s “difficult” father, who’s portrayed more as a controlling, denigrating force to Mitch Winehouse’s happy parasite. But the film, after a promising start, becomes laboured. Dano is good as the younger, space-cadet Brian, and delivers some simple, touching lines. John Cusack has interesting moments as the sadder, more lost 1980s version, under the repressive regime of psychologist (and surrogate father figure) Dr Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, who has decided to ham up the villainy to 11 on the dial).

Love & Mercy suffers, however, from lapses into hokey and obvious dialogue. “Sometimes your inner voice wants to express itself,” says the older Wilson, “and every once in a while your soul comes out to play, to express itself.” Was it written like that, or was Cusack improvising?

In Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden (in limited release), the launch pad is France’s early-’90s rave scene. Like Love & Mercy it starts well, but gradually becomes like an interminable soap opera. There’s a suicide, relationship break-ups, new beginnings and a pervasive sense of sadness: what does happen to DJs when they age? Félix de Givry is Paul, a teenager when the film begins. Eden follows his life as a largely struggling DJ for 20 years, leaping forward two or three years at a time right up to the present. But you don’t care about the characters enough for the journey to become compelling.

Some will like the Proustian attention to detail in Eden, and there are pleasant juxtapositions to be experienced between its measured pacing and the frenetic ambience of the parties and raves, the light shows and dance floors and beats. “It’s exactly what we like,” says Paul, describing a piece of music, “between euphoric and melancholic.” He might well be describing the contrasting pulses of the film itself.

In Eden, only Daft Punk get famous. “Leave me alone and I’ll do it. I will do the music!” said Amy Winehouse. Daft Punk’s real-life band members, who have worn (actual) masks for the better part of 20 years, seem to have pulled off what Winehouse couldn’t: by all accounts, the duo lead relatively normal lives.

“If I could give it back,” Winehouse said to her bodyguard, Andrew Morris, “just to walk down the street, with no hassle – I would.” When she died of alcohol poisoning in July 2011, her blood-alcohol level was eight times the legal Australian drink-drive limit. Her tiny body, long pushed to its limits, abandoned her. Her final recording had been a duet with her hero Tony Bennett – 84 years old at the time – of the classic song ‘Body and Soul’; and it is Bennett who delivers the film’s simplest, most moving elegy: “If she had lived, I would have said, ‘Slow down. You’re too important. Life teaches you really how to live it. If you can live long enough.’”

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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