Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse documentary: what we must remember while watching the BBC’s Reclaiming Amy

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“She didn’t let anybody down; she was a victim of addiction,” says Amy Winehouse’s father.

10 years ago, the legendary Amy Winehouse joined Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, and Jim Morrison to become a member of the ill-fated 27 Club. 

Now, in the BBC’s Reclaiming Amy – which marks the anniversary of the singer’s death from accidental alcohol poisoning – Winehouse’s mother, Janis, highlights her daughter’s triumphs and darknesses as she offers up “a different version of events from the story of the singer so often told.”

Featuring three of Winehouse’s closest friends and her father, Mitch, the hour-long documentary acts primarily as a reflection and tribute to a rare talent. 

In doing so, though, it reminds us that Winehouse’s award-winning music was often overshadowed by her alcohol and drug addiction. And, more importantly, that the media’s exploitation of her fall from grace tempered the singer’s narrative – as well as our understanding of her death.

“In the glare of the world’s media, grieving was even harder,” Janis reveals.

Watch the trailer for Reclaiming Amy below:

An old soul, Winehouse’s tattooed arms, powerhouse vocals, and towering beehive made her standout from the other pop artists that had long dominated the music industry.

Despite this, “troubled” was the prominent adjective used to describe Winehouse, and the tabloids’ near-constant coverage of her sundry personal problems propelled her to fame, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Indeed, just a handful of the many, many negative headlines surrounding Winehouse are highlighted in the film.

“The photographers are there for every episode in the Winehouse soap opera,” reads one all too aptly.

Amy Winehouse
Amy Winehouse has long been held up as a tragic figure.

Despite this, it’s Winehouse’s parents who are usually blamed for her demise – which they suggest is largely due to Asif Kapadia’s portrayal of the singer’s story in the Oscar-winning 2015 documentary film, Amy.

“I don’t think the movie did Amy justice,” reflects Janis. “She was a caricature.”

Keen to set the record straight, the BBC documentary opens with a solemn declaration: “Amy came from a very loving family.”

And, while they admit that mistakes were made (“I’ll be honest with you, I loved the limelight,” admits Mitch at one point), Winehouse’s parents explains that the 2006 death of Mitch’s mother, Cynthia, and Janis’s multiple sclerosis diagnosis meant they struggled to help their daughter. Indeed, Mitch believes it was her grandmother’s death “that lit the fuse” for Winehouse’s addictions.

It was that same year that Winehouse’s second album, Back To Black, was released, and thus began the media’s hounding of the singer. 

The tabloids covered every aspect of her life in despicable detail, sharing stories of drug overdoses, self-harm, and public scraps. A picture of Winehouse with cocaine residue on her nostril made the front page of The Evening Standard, and a celebrity drug plotter sold covert footage of Winehouse taking drugs to The Sun for £50,000.

And, of course, there were the endless stories about Blake Fielder-Civil, the singer’s ex-husband, who has been accused of introducing her to hard drugs.

“She didn’t let anybody down; she was a victim of addiction,” says Mitch at one point during the film.

“Addiction is the culprit, and more powerful than the love anybody can give.”

While Winehouse’s struggle with drugs and alcohol addiction was well-documented by the press at the time, the film also shines a light (albeit briefly) on Winehouse’s sexuality and battle with bulimia. And the singer’s friends – Naomi, Catriona and Chantell – take the time to open up about the mental health struggles that Winehouse faced throughout the years they knew her.

“She basically switched from one addiction to another, from drugs to alcohol,” says Naomi. “And that was the problem; the addiction was a byproduct of something else much deeper that needed addressing, and it was mental health issues.”

She adds: “She didn’t want to admit that she had mental health issues because at that time people didn’t understand mental health.”

In the years after Winehouse’s death, the singer’s family has set up the Amy Winehouse Foundation in order to support people dealing with addictions of their own.

And, speaking in the documentary, one of the charity’s previous residents, Melissa, admits: “I don’t think I’d be alive today if it weren’t for them.”

Mitch, however, has urged people to focus not just on Winehouse’s struggles, but on her triumphs, too.

“She didn’t waste her life,” he says, ushering the camera crew into Janis’ home, where the walls are filled with the star’s tokens of success. 

“She won five Grammys.”

Amy Winehouse looks up at a television monitor whilst awaiting news of her Grammy Award at The Riverside Studios for the 50th Grammy Awards ceremony on February 10, 2008 in London, England. Winehouse won 5 out of her 6 nominations including, record of the year, best new artist, song of the year, pop vocal album and female pop vocal performance. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images for NARAS)
Amy Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning on 23 July 2011, at the age of 27.

Reclaiming Amy celebrates Winehouse as an incredible, complex woman – something which the media’s relentless attacks did not do while she was alive. Instead, they held Winehouse up as a tragic figure, and in the process suggested that her death was somehow inevitable. They made many of us, too, believe that this was the case.

As the documentary makes all too clear, though, addiction can impact anyone – no one can ever know what someone else is struggling with – and it is a long-term, progressive illness. That, while it is treatable, there is no quick-fix ‘cure’. That recovery is a lifelong commitment. And so, rather than exploit or judge those struggling with this illness, we should advise them how best to seek help.

Reclaiming Amy will air Friday 23 July at 9pm on BBC Two.

If you are struggling with addiction, Samaritans (116 123) operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at jo@samaritans.org.

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