Reviewing Reclaiming Amy: Winehouse 10 years on

Celebrating the late icon’s life and legacy on the tenth anniversary of her death, the BBC’s Reclaiming Amy is a brand new documentary largely told from the point of view of her mother, Janis Winehouse, and features friends, family, and loved ones sharing their memories of the musician, alongside previously unseen material provided by Winehouse’s family. 

It’s a moving, upsetting and at times defensive programme portrays a formidable musical talent who fell victim to her addictions, an eating disorder and the people who coulda shoulda helped her, but didn’t. A bit like the previous Amy documentaries then.

“I don’t feel the world knew the true Amy, the one that I brought up, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to offer an understanding of her roots and a deeper insight into the real Amy,” Janis Winehouse says.

“Janis lives with multiple sclerosis, a condition which threatens to strip her of her memories of Amy, and is a large part of her motivation to make this timely and personal documentary,” adds the BBC press release trailing the film.

There are few worse things than losing a child; but losing a child and being hounded in the press, accused of exploiting and failing her at her time of greatest need, is trauma on another level. There’s a palpable sadness to this documentary marking the tenth anniversary of Amy Winehouse’s death. And defiance, too. “You think you know my daughter. The drugs, the addiction, the destructive relationships. But there was so much more,” says her mother at the outset. As the title suggests, the idea is to dispel the myths that have grown up around Amy and her tragically early demise.

In practice, it’s a deeply felt attempt by her family and friends to set the record straight about the events that saw Winehouse go so spectacularly off the rails, and their role in them. A morality tale of an ordinary Jewish family overwhelmed by an extraordinarily talented daughter and the fame that consumed her. 

Previous efforts to document the icon have been met with a mixed response. 2015’s Amy, an acclaimed biopic directed by Asif Kapadia, drew criticism from her father, Mitch Winehouse, who distanced himself from the project after initially agreeing to take part. As I noted at the time, he didn’t exactly come out of the experience smelling of roses, so it‘s an uncomfortable revelation in the new one that we learn how that same year Mitch had a nervous breakdown because of it. At least, here, he gets to put across his side of the story.

Limelight-loving Mitch (who gets “a really bad rep”, says Tyler James, Amy’s bestie housemate) published his own account, titled Amy, My Daughter, in 2013, and announced a multi-million pound deal for a Hollywood biopic in 2018. The same year, another documentary on Winehouse, Back To Black, raised yet more questions about who gets to tell her story. What follows is various disconnected clips such as the moment the singer was shocked to receive news of winning a Grammy, thanks to an announcement from Tony Bennett, her final collaborator who read out the award, plus archive footage of a school production of Grease with Amy as Rizzo, and various concerts on her rise to fame and notoriety.

Essentially, Amy was pulled into the undertow of a short life unmoored by celebrity, poor parenting and the swirl of a tumultuous relationship with the man who introduced her to crack cocaine and heroin, the odious Blake Fielder-Civil.

Having said that, in the programme makes it patently clear that some of Amy’s circle are convinced that the biggest problem this spunky but fragile character was not alcoholism or addiction — or even her “undefined” lesbian affair with close friend Catriona Gourlay (above), who recalls the moment when Amy told an interviewer: “I’m not a lesbian until I’ve had three sambucas.”— no, it “was being famous”. 

In this respect, this desperately sad film is careful not to point the finger of blame, yet it’s another reminder of how a number of people were complicit in her destruction, from family and friends to managers and record company executives; from the media who voraciously fed on her story to the legions of fans who consumed it.

Those admirers were left wondering what kind of music the rambunctious and talented artist might have created beyond the two LPs she did make. But most of all, her family was left without their daughter and sister.

Such a personal take is necessarily also partial. There’s no Pete Doherty here, nothing from her last boyfriend, no one from the music industry. When the long separated Janis and Mitch watch footage of Amy, it’s clear they’re also fondly seeing the big-eyed toddler, the gifted schoolgirl, the bright but bolshie teenager. We can’t watch in the same way. When Mitch smiles at a clip of an embarrassingly drunk Amy duetting with him, he’s seemingly oblivious to the pitiful display.

It’s hard not to feel saddened by Winehouse’s tumultuous last years.

Most of us watched, from a tabloid-bridged distance, while, in a case of life echoing art, her beehive hairdo grew higher and messier as her addictions to drugs and alcohol escalated. Very Patsy Stone indeed.

With 39 just a pipe dream, she was 27 when she died of alcohol poisoning in July 2011, and spent the last five years of her life struggling with an eating disorder, canceling concerts due to erratic behaviour, and having run-ins with the law due to her drug and alcohol abuse. And all this while forging an eclectic mix of jazz, pop, soul, and R&B that won her five Grammy awards for her masterful epitaph, 2007’s Back To Black album, and song and record of the year for Rehab. 

Reclaiming Amy is the centrepiece of a Friday night line-up celebrating Winehouse on BBC Two and Four, among the best of which is Maurice Linnane’s fabulously up-close 2012 Arena film Amy Winehouse: The Day She Came to Dingle, about a stormy night when Amy took to the stage of a tiny church in a remote corner of Ireland and wowed the packed crowd with a searing, acoustic set of songs from Back To Black. 

She only said goodbye with words.

Steve Pafford 

Reclaiming Amy is viewable on the BBC iPlayer for the next 11 months. VPNs at the ready then

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