Asif Kapadia’s documentary about the life and death of Amy Winehouse has been a fixture in the London top ten since its release. It has been praised for its sensitivity and dedication to a ‘true’ picture of Winehouse. But does it just follow a standard narrative for jazz musicians in the movies? Sarah and Martin Slade compare and contrast with the biopic of another jazz legend, Billie Holiday.
When she was alive, writers compared Amy Winehouse to the great jazz singers of the 40s and 50s, mainly because anybody who sings with a bit of a blue note gets compared to a) Frank Sinatra b) Billie Holiday c) Peggy Lee. But Winehouse was the real deal. Her songs pushed at the boundaries of soul and jazz, like Holiday, and there were the more obvious parallels in their personal lives. So we thought it would be interesting to look at Amy alongside a different treatment of a jazz singer’s life story and see what happens from the point of view of a writer who likes jazz (Sarah) and a grumpy jazz musician (Martin).
Sarah: So, we’re looking at Lady Sings The Blues and Amy. I think the first thing I notice about these is the similarity in the narrative. Musically talented teenagers find fame and glory, mentored at various stages by kindly chaps, discover drugs, suffer various iniquities and eventually die tragically young.
Martin: Similarity is right. I always watch these things with the hope that there will be a departure from the template and it will be 80% about the musical process and 20% personal story, but always ends up other way round. Both of these films sketch over the learning process. Billie Holiday listened to one blues record obsessively and from that her craft was born fully formed. Amy Winehouse I believe went to the other side of London to study, but no mention of her studies or what drove her to that choice.
Sarah: Yes, neither film was that concerned about their work other than to have various witnesses attest to its brilliance or to hear them performing. Which is nice, but for some reason documentary film makers never allow you to hear the full song, just a snippet. The makers of Amy concentrated on who or what inspired her to write the songs (usually boyfriends…duh) rather than how she worked. Maybe that’s what people want to watch, though. Not everybody is a grumpy jazz musician after all.
There’s always a sense of destiny about these treatments as well. In Lady Sings the Blues, events are massaged and timelines screwed about with to make it look like Billie Holiday (Diana Ross) had achieved some kind of God-ordained destiny with, as you say, the minimum of effort on her part. She gets her first gig when the Piano Man (Richard Pryor) persuades the club owner to hear her sing, and by chance Louis Mackay (Billy Dee Williams) is in the audience that night and doesn’t get her sacked for not picking up her tips using some unspecified thigh movement that looked jolly uncomfortable and unsanitary. As for Amy, the first scene is of her singing Happy Birthday, aged 14 and full of cheek and nonsense like any self-respecting London girl, and the next thing we know she’s on the road with her band and singing with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra.
Martin: Of course there are good bits that make watching worthwhile. Amy’s facial expression contortions while an interviewer compares her song-writing process to that of Dido’s made my day. Billie Holiday giving as good as she got on the band bus rang true. Then there are the other bits that don’t get explained – how Billie and her new beau walk around what looked very much like a well-heeled white person’s hotel in the height of racial segregation without being challenged. Sarah had to inform me that her beau was reputed to be a gangster which would make sense, but in the film he’s just a good guy who loves Billie.
Sarah: …who can get into fancy clubs that would probably have shown him the door in real life. That sort of thing turns me into Angry Historian. Mind you, I can forgive Lando Calrissian pretty much anything…
I think we’ve rambled into the thickets of unreliable source material with Lady Sings The Blues. The film was a fictionalisation of a biography by a jobbing hack, based on a series of interviews with Holiday, with extra bits put in to show off the depth of Ross’s research into Holiday’s life and vocal technique (she got nominated for an Oscar after all). Marriages go missing, as do several high-profile lovers, her mother is a put-upon saint, Strange Fruit magically appears on the repertoire after she witnesses a lynching, and her intensely creative platonic relationship with Lester Young was translated to some kind of drug-addled friendship with Richard Pryor the Piano Man who was too weak to say no to her. Why would they do that? Is Lester Young too boring for Richard Pryor or was it easier to fake playing the piano than playing the sax?
Martin: Yes it is (the latter).
Sarah: The lack of source material is less of a problem with Amy Winehouse, as her every move was documented by a phalanx of paparazzi and well-placed ‘friends’ who were willing to dish the dirt for a few quid. Not to mention her dad. But plenty of people have already put Mitch Winehouse through the mill for his questionable parenting skills, so I’m not going to bother. And even then, we still have different people telling different stories. Mitch and her manager will say that she agreed to do a tour, while her friends and former manager will say she was under intense pressure to agree. Then her producer will say something else and…ooh look! Pete Doherty saying yet another thing. It’s almost like we have too much information about Amy.
Yet with both stories we arrive at the same place; the premature death of the central character. Critics reviewing Amy have noted that there were several points in the film where she could have turned a corner; she could have stopped drinking or got clean and possibly gone on to achieve something truly great, but to me it didn’t look like she had the time to just hole herself up in a studio and write stuff.
That also comes across in Lady Sings The Blues: the mental and physical pressures of touring, particularly on the chitlins circuit of the 1940s. Holiday’s drug addiction comes as a response to the strains of living on a bus with a bunch of other people for months, never getting enough sleep, having to deal with the petty humiliations of segregation every hour of the day, yet being expected to turn in a great performance every night. Amy Winehouse seemed happiest when she was working or creating or playing pool with other musicians. How was her pool playing, by the way?
Martin: From what little I saw looked pretty accomplished. I’m struggling with why there is this need to compress everything into the director’s idea of what their life should have been like. The messiness and inconsistencies of a real life not enough? Probably need a director’s view on that one. It was just the same feeling as watching the recent Kurt Cobain film, which follows the same template. Seems it’s no different with a biopic or clips job. It’s not restricted to music biographies either, I had the same feeling watching the film about eccentric Scottish cyclist Graeme Obree, The Flying Scotsman, after having read the book. In the book, his brother plays a huge part in his life, and his early death is a shattering moment. In the film he had no brother…was it too messy?
Sarah: So, let’s wrap this up before lunch. My conclusion about Amy is that it’s a good documentary but that it treads an all-too familiar path by concentrating on her personal life without explaining sufficiently why she was so special, and having loads of friends and people with a stake in her career saying “Yeah, she was really good” doesn’t really cut it. There was more to Winehouse than her disastrous marriage and drug addiction, but in the end that’s what dominates the narrative, and it adds up to an incomplete picture. Martin?
Martin: She was really good, which as you say the film states rather than demonstrates. I think she was only just starting to shed the mannerisms and allow her real voice to come through. The scene with Tony Bennett was particularly revealing, as she was so shy and over-awed that her voice got tied up in a knot of satirical jazz noises. But then Mr Bennett put her at her ease and she turned in a great vocal performance.
Sarah: Tony Bennett is lovely, isn’t he?
Martin: Yes, he is.
Sarah: If you put him in a room with Herbie Hancock, there’d be a tsunami of sheer niceness that would probably solve all the problems in the world at a stroke.
Martin: And on that bombshell…