Going back to black with Amy

A still of Amy Winehouse from <i>Amy</i>

A still of Amy Winehouse from Amy

Amy and I have always had a complicated relationship. It began back in 2006, when I was 19 and in treatment for heroin addiction at Caron Institute in Pennsylvania, and she released her single “Rehab.”

I would walk the halls through the women's unit, smiling ruefully while singing along to the chorus: “They tried to make me go to rehab / But I said, 'No, no, no ...'” It became somewhat of a private joke between myself and I, even though I had physically gone through the motions of saying "yes" — signing the paperwork and admitting myself to the detox ward — defiance still rang clear as a bell through my clouded mind.

Attending last week's pre-screening at the Walker Art Center for Amy, the documentary film directed by Asif Kapadia set to be released worldwide this Friday, signified paying my final respects to a woman who felt like more of a kindred spirit to me than an internationally renowned, Grammy-winning songstress. Apparently I was not alone in the matter. By the end of the showing most of the attendees were in tears; the woman seated next to me was trembling in hysterics, sobbing.

The most beautiful moments of the film, which begins screening Friday at the Lagoon in Uptown, were the early ones, captured in candid moments by handheld video camera. These precious fleeting glimpses of Amy's private interactions with her closest friends show a dangerously seductive young woman fully aware of her prowess. Though at times silly, nervous, and awkward, her flirtatious side always won over. “You're like a powerful man,” remarks early boyfriend Chris Taylor, caught on film comparing her to the character of Karen in Goodfellas.

She never did think she'd become such a star. “I don't think I could handle it,” she says. “I'd probably go mad.” She fought her way through interviews, abrasively declaring her disgust for the use of false instruments on recordings, and becoming visibly disgusted at a reporter's comparison of her songwriting to that of Dido's. At this point the audience burst out laughing, but our emotional disintegration began shortly thereafter.

Music was Amy's outlet. “All I'm good for is making tunes, so leave me alone and I'll do it,” she demands. She could never really escape anyone's expectations though, and in the end I believe it was love that truly killed her — she had too much love to give, and was shown all the wrong ways to give it.

Amy stopped working in 2005 and moved into her property in Camden, London. “Things started changing,” says her friend Juliette Ashby. Though it was one full year before I would even become aware of Amy's existence, it was during this time that our paths began to intersect, if only in similarity to one another's predilection for symbiotic relationships.

Amy met her future husband Blake Fielder-Civil playing pool in a Camden nightclub quickly after moving to the area. Suddenly she appears looking disheveled and fucked up in tabloid photos, mascara smeared across her face, and hollow eyes lolling back and forth. I was in New York City, after leaving a full scholarship to art school behind to move into an apartment with my own new boyfriend. He was the first man I ever truly loved, and the first to stick a needle into my arm.

According to the film's depiction of the development of Amy and Blake's relationship, it was Blake who served as the catalyst into Amy's descent into addiction. Though he thoroughly denies this responsibility, it is difficult to absolve him of it all. During this phase Amy even compares love to drugs, admitting to her obsession with Blake and penning the song “Some Unholy War.”

“But who you dying for?” the song asks, then continues, “B, I would have died too ... I'd have liked to ...”

I understand this. I don't like admitting that I understand this, and I can't quite explain why it felt so organic and compelling to give all of myself to such a self-destructive kind of love. But I did. And when it ended, I totally lost it.

“When it finished,” Amy says of her relationship with Blake, “I went nuts.”

For some reason her father Mitch couldn't see it though. “She doesn't need to go to rehab — she's fine,” he says — hence the song lyrics to “Rehab.” (“I ain't got the time, and if my Daddy thinks I'm fine ...”) Luckily my parents had quite a different reaction to my drug use, probably because I wasn't on the verge of fame and raking in astonishing amounts of cash.

“I write songs because I'm fucked up in the head,” Winehouse says. We see her seemingly at peace again during the film — at the home of Salaam Remi, sober, and writing music. But it quickly becomes clear that, left to her own devices, Amy is still drowning in heartbreak. It is revealed to those around her that she is bulimic after she “redecorates” a bathroom during a recording session and then proceeds to drown herself in whiskey.

Heartbreak is a source of great art, though. After her sophomore album Back to Black is released in 2006, the world becomes privy to her immense talent and all hell breaks loose. There are cameras everywhere, paparazzi snapping her every move, the flashes blinding and threatening. The imagery is intensely frightening. It wasn't just the pop-culture world that was suddenly so impressed by Amy, though. In 2007, she is back with Blake again, suddenly referring to him as her fiancee.

Blake speaks of them doing crack and heroin after getting married, and more terrifying footage ensues. Now I am in tears, knuckles white and clutching my seat because I know how this story is going to end. We all do. There is concert footage of her too fucked up to sing, wandering the stage as if lost and actually slapping herself in the face mid-song, scratching at herself. I recognize the familiar itch caused by opiates, and the dead-eyed stare.

How can I explain addiction to a person who hasn't experienced it? My best attempt is to compare the drug to a lover, your greatest love that will break your heart over and over again but somehow have you running back into their arms. This love will promise you safety and redemption, a Kevorkian kind of exit from your pain.

We watch Amy go through this process throughout the rest of the film, a total self-fulfilling prophecy living out all the words of her songs. She becomes a ghost before our eyes, her beautiful, curvaceous body now emaciated and stumbling barefoot and bloodied through the streets of London with Blake at her side, his face slashed with scratch marks.

When their flat was raided in November of 2007, Blake was arrested and incarcerated. “When he went to jail she spiraled very quickly,” says manager Raye Cosbert. She had lost her love for the second time, but was he really ever there at all? To me, it seems that Blake was just a specter, just like the empty lies that heroin fed my own young veins and the constant disappearing act that love has played throughout my own life. Cornered and trapped, the media began to dehumanize and shame her, making a mockery of her bulimia and struggles with addiction and alcoholism. Amy was condemned.

Ever since my first Narcotics Anonymous meeting, where I was instructed to introduce myself as, “Hi, I'm Sarah, and I'm an addict,” I've felt condemned too. Society and popular culture have a cruel way of labeling those of us who struggle with vices. Today I feel strong enough to say that I am Sarah, and I'm a human being. With a whole shit-storm of negativity raining upon her, did Amy lose all faith in herself and forgo her own humanity, accepting the names she was branded by on the covers of every tabloid magazine as her own identity?

She somehow manages to achieve brief moments of sobriety, but never collects herself enough to truly enjoy them. Even upon winning her Grammys she is heard complaining to her friend, “Jules, this is so boring without drugs.” Her young body began to show signs of the cumulative effects of binging and purging, drinking and drugging, though she still fought to stay sober.

Her father Mitch only serves to twist the knife in deeper, as he invades her happy and sober vacation in St. Lucia with camera and audio crew in tow, insisting rudely that she pose for photos with fans and goading her with guilt. He has since disavowed the film, which definitely doesn't surprise me — seems to me like Mitch played just as evil of a role as Blake did in Amy's deterioration. We watch him force her to fly to Serbia and fulfill tour dates that he claims were a contractual obligation, where she climbs the stage only to fall down repeatedly, refusing to sing, until she is booed off the stage. “It felt like the end,” said her pianist Sam Beste. The tour is canceled.

The dust seems to settle. Amy calls her best friend to apologize for her behavior, and seemingly to ask for help. The next morning she is found dead in her apartment, a victim of alcohol poisoning, at the age of 27.

I was crumbling then, watching footage of her body being taken in a body-bag from her home. I am crying even now, writing this almost a full week later. Why am I still here? I sometimes wonder who gets to make the final call as to which of us make it out alive. How could such a vivacious presence, with a talent so huge enough to make any observer literally tremble, crumble under the force of love? Did she feel as if she needed to live up to Blake, or did she need to live up to the names she was called in the tabloids? Did her father push her over the brink, placing his own selfish desires before her vulnerabilities? Did the drugs kill her, or did love?

I still listen to Amy's songs over and over, as I have for years. Within the past month I've been broken up with, and returned to wearing out Back to Black in my new basement apartment, freshly alone and afraid. I stay sober, waking up each morning in terror to stick a Suboxone to the bottom of my tongue and commit to another day without dope. Her dark, deep voice still comforts me, and I feel those lines like an arrow through the head: “Life is like a pipe, and I'm a tiny penny rolling up the walls inside.”

I want to thank her. I want to apologize to her. I want to hold Asif Kapadia in my arms and thank him for finally portraying Amy as the human being she was,spirited even through her darkest days and reaching out from those shadows, hoping to connect, even until the light burnt out and she truly returned to black.