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Creative Sensemaker

Love is a losing game

Thursday 22 July 2021

Tomorrow is the tenth anniversary of Amy Winehouse’s death. In tribute to the late singer, Reclaiming Amy, Marina Parker’s new documentary, is to be broadcast on BBC Two – and poses complex questions about who, exactly, was complicit in her tragic decline

If you’ve been listening to Dave Chappelle’s marvellous podcast series, The Midnight Miracle (Luminary), you might have heard his fellow presenter, Yasiin Bey (AKA Mos Def), reminisce poignantly about his friend, Amy Winehouse.

“How do you make somebody want to live?” asks Chappelle. “Is there something you can do for someone like that? Seriously – if someone you love was actually slowly killing themselves, what do you do?” 

To this, Bey has no glib answer. But the heaviness of heart with which he recalls the late singer and her addictions is moving. “She was in the zone one night, and we were staying in the same hotel… She said: ‘I just want to hang out with you’, and we kicked it, came back to my room and she whipped out this aluminium foil situation and I was like, ‘What is that?’, and she was like, ‘It’s gear’.

“And I’d never been up close to someone doing hard drugs like that, and I felt like it was better for me to be that oasis for her because it was crazy around her… She was at the height of her success and she was on one… She said: ‘You know, doing drugs can be a bit boring.’” But that recognition did not stop the madness, as Bey reflects: “God bless our beloved ones.”

To mark the tenth anniversary of Winehouse’s death, her family and friends have collaborated in a new documentary Reclaiming Amy (BBC Two, 23 July, 9pm). Her mother Janis and father Mitchell are interviewed extensively; their clear purpose being to provide a more nuanced account of her life and tribulations, and to correct what they regard as the errors of the many books and films that have appeared about her in the past decade – notably, Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning documentary Amy (All 4), in which Mitch, in particular, is portrayed as neglectful of his troubled daughter.

In Marina Parker’s new documentary, he says that the Kapadia film contributed to his own mental breakdown in 2015, the year of its release. And – not surprisingly – it is clear that his life is still dominated by memories of his lost child, and a desperate bid to achieve some sort of peace. In a tragic Freudian slip, he even addresses his Alexa device as “Amy”. 

For her mother Janis, the task is to ensure that her daughter is not remembered as just another pop star who destroyed herself with drugs and drink: “There was so much more. She resonated at a different frequency to anyone else. It often feels like the Amy we know has been lost.”

It is certainly true that, in only two studio albums, Frank (2003) and Back to Black (2006), Winehouse established that she had one of the great voices of her era, and that, had she lived longer, she would certainly have taken her place alongside such all-time greats as Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald and Minnie Ripperton.

“She was just unbelievable,” said the legendary producer, John Hammond, of his discovery of the 17-year-old Billie Holiday in a speakeasy on 133rd Street in 1933. Listen even now to “Love is a Losing Game”, or “Me & Mr Jones”, or “Back to Black”, and feel the same incredulity: the inimitable majesty of the Winehouse voice is matched by both fierce defiance and a plangent melancholy. 

Tony Bennett with Amy Winehouse after Bennett’s concert at the Royal Albert Hall, 2010

And so, at the Staples Center Los Angeles in 2008, she won no fewer than five Grammys and – her face a picture – was hailed as a star by the hero she shared with her father, Tony Bennett. A little more than three years later, she was dead.

Perhaps the most affecting feature of the documentary is the resilient loyalty and love of her female friends – with one of whom, Catriona Gourlay, she had, Gourlay says, an intense bond that became a love affair. In her opinion, Winehouse struggled with her sexual identity, as with so much else. It was Gourlay who chose the Dolce & Gabbana dress for her friend’s cremation.

Winehouse’s mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, feels only remorse that her illness prevented her from doing more: “I could only watch and wait.” It is heart-breaking to see her presenting a room in her house that is now a shrine to Amy, full of memorabilia, gold discs and vertiginously-heeled shoes.

Mitch – who published a book about his daughter in 2012, and has released two albums of his own – is much more defensive. “There’s always got to be a culprit!” he says. “There wasn’t a culprit. The culprit is the addiction… That addiction is more powerful than any love that anyone can give.”

That is true enough – though he himself admits that “I loved the limelight. I’ll be honest with you, I loved the limelight.” But it was not his limelight to enjoy and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he tried to live the life of a superstar vicariously through his daughter. 

Amy Winehouse, her father Mitch and mother Janis with Amy’s award for Best Song Musically and Lyrically for ‘Love Is A Losing Game’ at the 53rd Ivor Novello Awards, 2008

The most common accusation levelled at Mitch – that he kept her out of rehab (remember her own lyric: “I ain’t got the time/ And if my daddy thinks I’m fine”) – is addressed only to the extent that he says he tried and failed to have her sectioned. At a minimum, Gourlay is surely right to suggest, as diplomatically as she can, that “he should have been a bit more guarded in what he was saying, who he spoke to.”

Yet it would be quite wrong to lay all the blame at his door, or indeed at anyone’s. The horror of the Amy Winehouse story is to be found in the structural complicity of the entertainment industry, the media and even the public, in what amounted to a slow-motion death across several years.  

In which context, I recently came across an article I wrote in 2007: “Worst of all are the eyes, which look like tiny windows into a one-woman abyss. The jolly soap opera of pub brawls and off licence pranks has become a frame-by-frame car crash. The vultures circle over the hunched figure of this deeply damaged woman. The “stupid club” of which Kurt Cobain’s mother spoke mournfully after his death [musicians who died at 27] seems to be preparing Winehouse’s membership papers.”

On this occasion, I wish with all my heart that I had been completely and utterly wrong. Four years later, she was indeed dead, aged only 27, installed in the club alongside Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, and Jim Morrison. 

A woman who ought to have had at least half a century of musical genius ahead of her was swept away by the alcohol that tore apart her bulimia-ravaged body. How could such promise be cut off so cruelly? In the end, extreme solitude holds its secrets tight. “What am I scared of?” she says in the film. “Myself.”

Here are this week’s recommendations:


Old (23 July, general release)

There are a handful of us who have remained loyal to M. Night Shyamalan since his supernatural masterpiece, The Sixth Sense (1999); and it would be idle to deny that it has grown harder over the years. His offbeat superhero trilogy – Unbreakable (2000), Split (2016) and Glass (2019) – amounted to something of a reprieve, making the most, as it did, of the respective talents of Bruce Willis, James McAvoy and Samuel L. Jackson. But there have been too many full-on, gobbling turkeys: The Happening (2008), featuring Mark Wahlberg talking to trees, The Last Airbender (2010), from which Dev Patel’s career might never have recovered, and the unspeakable Will and Jaden Smith sci-fi vehicle, After Earth (2013). 

Still, he keeps coming back – this time, with another supernatural movie, starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Vicky Prieps, and Rufus Sewell, based on the graphic novel Sandcastle (2010) by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters. A group of families find themselves stuck on a beach where time is accelerating. There are shocks galore, and a satisfying spookiness curls through the film from start to finish. To say more would involve spoilers, but this is definitely the work of a director who, for all the setbacks of the past two decades, is still thinking and dreaming.

Nobody (VOD, selected cinemas)

When Bob Odenkirk, the comic writer and actor, was cast as crooked lawyer Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad, there were some who thought he would be completely implausible in a saga of such dark criminality. After five seasons of his character’s spin-off series, Better Call Saul, nobody is doubting showrunner Vince Gilligan’s original instinct. Now Odenkirk goes one better, in Ilya Naishuller’s sharp action movie, in which he plays Hutch Mansell, a retired CIA “auditor” – the most hard-bitten of assassins. Needless to say, he is dragged back into his past life when a botched burglary leads him into the ultra-violent world of the Russian mob. After a crash course in martial arts and physical training, Odenkirk is more than equal to the often-brutal fight scenes – and is now well-placed, if he so chooses, to take action roles between his more cerebral or comic performances. The debt, by the way, to David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005) is clear enough, which is to say that Nobody is a fine example of a cinematic subgenre (“Killer Forced Out of Meek Retirement by Events Beyond His Control”). Watch out for a scene-stealing performance by Christopher Lloyd (Doc from Back to the Future) as Hutch’s father – who has a secret or two up his sleeve, too.

Nowhere Special (selected cinemas, Curzon Home Cinema from 16 August)

Since his smooth performance in McMafia (2008) ensured his routine nomination as the next James Bond – a role that will at last fall vacant when Daniel Craig’s swansong movie as 007, the much-delayed No Time to Die is finally released in September – James Norton has been busy establishing himself as a versatile, front-rank actor. Uberto Pasolini (nephew of the great director, Luchino Visconti) makes excellent use of him in this understated but affecting movie. Norton is John, a Belfast window cleaner and single father caring for four-year-old Michael (Daniel Lamont) – who, discovering he is terminally ill with brain cancer, must find a new and loving home for his son. The two principal performances are stunning, and keep at bay the sentimentality that might otherwise have marred this exquisite movie.


A Cursed Place – Peter Hanington (Two Roads)

Hanington’s third thriller featuring veteran BBC reporter, William Carver, is a true page-turner, combining the author’s insights and expertise as a distinguished editor and producer of foreign news with a pace that keeps the reader guessing and embroiled in a plot that sweeps us from Peckham, via Hong Kong and Chile, to the Big Tech citadels of Silicon Valley. Taking a breather from the global beat, Carver is teaching students at the BBC’s College of Journalism who are unsure of the difference between fact and opinion. But, like any true foreign affairs hack, he keeps a “grab bag” close to hand – three changes of clothes, two passports, four hundred pounds in a variety of currencies and a washbag. And it is not long before he is back in action, unpicking a complex story that involves digital surveillance on an unprecedented scale, a resistance movement struggling to preserve democracy and spooks doing their best to keep up in a hyper-connected world in which personal data, however acquired, is everything. Highly recommended.

Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism – Amanda Montell (HarperWave)

Conspiracy theories and cults are for other people, right? Not so fast. Amanda Montell, a linguist from Baltimore, Maryland, shows in this incisive and imaginative book that most groups and communities foster a language or patois of their own that, in slogans, neologisms and jargon both bond their members and give them a sense of exclusivity. Indeed, language can persuade “people to act in ways that are completely in conflict with their former reality, ethics, and sense of self.” This does not mean, of course, that, say, Peloton, Goop and SoulCycle are morally equivalent to Scientology, QAnon or Charles Manson’s “Family”. But the linguistic techniques – the “cultish” language – that inform our daily lives have much in common with the methods used by the sinister groups we denounce. A wake-up call that should alert us to our neural susceptibilities and the spectrum of linguistic mesmerism – mostly enacted digitally – that dominates much of the modern world.

The Day of the Jackal (50th Anniversary Edition) – Frederick Forsyth (Penguin)

In his new introduction to this classic thriller, Lee Child identifies what made this story of an assassin’s plan to kill General de Gaulle at the behest of the Organisation Armée Secrète (or OAS) such a game-changer when it was first published in 1971: “It was as if [Forsyth] had written an in-depth, insider-secret true-crime book, a few years after a famous event.” Suspense – we know de Gaulle survived the numerous attempts on his life – was much less important than detail, authenticity and the drama of personal interaction. Claude Lebel, the police commissioner who must stop the Jackal, is a great character, but, as Child notes, the author somehow manages to make us root for the assassin, too: “There have been memorable monsters and charismatic anti-heroes, but never before have so many readers so passionately supported a cipher.” A timeless masterpiece, that is a joy to re-read.


Seize the Power – Yonaka

Two years on from their debut studio album, Don’t Wait ‘Til Tomorrow, the Brighton-based alt-rock four-piece drops a truly thrilling mixtape that is full of infectious energy and sonic dynamism, including recent singles ‘Call Me A Saint’ and ‘Ordinary’. Singer Theresa Jarvis is acquiring the confidence of a true rock star, and it will be a treat to see the band as they resume touring (kicking off with Reading Festival next month).

Baroque – Nicola Benedetti

It is 17 years since Benedetti won the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition – an achievement nicely bookended by the Grammy she picked up last year for best classical instrument solo. In this first outing for the Benedetti Baroque Orchestra, the acclaimed violinist explores a series of concerti by Vivaldi and Geminiani’s arrangement of Corelli’s ‘La Folia’. After a successful run of concerts this month at Battersea Arts Centre, Benedetti has launched a new and intriguing chapter in her musical evolution – with undoubted panache.

Faith – Pop Smoke

Posthumous releases trigger strong emotions among hip hop fans. Cash-in or homage? There can be no definitive answer, but this – the second album issued under Pop Smoke’s name since he was murdered at his Los Angeles home in February, 2020 – is full of material that deserves an audience. Most striking, perhaps, is the absence of drill from these tracks, which include collaborations with Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Dua Lipa and Future. While the trademark menace of the late rapper remains, there is plenty of introspection and cool reflection here, too. 

…and finally, raise a toast this weekend to Sir Graham Vick, the great opera director who died on 17 July aged 67 of Covid-related complications. Though he is especially mourned by opera fans who relished his work as artistic director at the Birmingham Opera Company which he founded in 1987, he deserves to be remembered by all who believe in the creative arts, as one of the most significant British cultural figures of his era: a champion of widening access to classical material, and of ventures that stretched out a hand to audiences unaccustomed to culture that they perceived to be too difficult or too elitist. He was knighted in the New Year Honours list, but his greatest accomplishment was to persuade so many that art should “release its power for everybody”.

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Have a great week.

Best wishes

Matthew d’Ancona
Editor and Partner

Photographs Getty Images, Courtesy Winehouse Family/BBC, Shutterstock, Universal Pictures