Photo: Matt Brown
We all know about Amy Winehouse’s parents. Dad Mitch was the crooning, cab-driving bruiser who told her not to go to rehab, while hijacking her fame to secure his own 15 minutes in the limelight. Janis was the well-meaning but ineffectual mother unable or unwilling to control her daughter.
That is the abiding narrative established by the 2015 film Amy. It is getting a long-overdue reassessment in the form of another documentary, Reclaiming Amy, airing on BBC2 tonight, the tenth anniversary of her death.
The first production, directed by Asif Kapadia, was a devastating masterpiece – deserving of its best documentary Oscar. But it had a terrible impact on her bereft parents.
In tonight’s programme, a friend speaks of the ‘bile that’s been piled on to that family’. Mitch talks about how the film turned him into a villain and left him suffering a nervous breakdown. ‘I still get it now,’ he says. ‘You killed your daughter.’
It was the portrayal of Janis, however, that was arguably even more wanting. In its 128 minutes, she is given less than 90 seconds’ airtime to damn herself as an unfit mother who let Amy, from infancy, ‘get away with murder’, and whose only response to her daughter’s bulimia was the thought ‘that it would pass’. For more than half the documentary, the most important woman in Amy’s life isn’t given a single word.
But this was no fool. Janis was a pharmacist and a dedicated mother. Nor is there any mention of her multiple sclerosis. She explains tonight: ‘As her health got worse, my MS progressed. I couldn’t help her.’
I interviewed Mitch two years after Amy’s death, aged 27. This is a man who, one journalist snarked, had long since ditched his black cab to adopt chat shows as his vehicle instead. But I was taken aback by his brutal honesty and self-awareness.
I mentioned What Is It About Men, a track from her first album reflecting on Mitch leaving Janis for his second wife. Lyrics included: ‘My destructive side has grown a mile wide’ and ‘I can’t help but demonstrate my Freudian fate’.
Another father might not have taken so kindly to such a question. Mitch, though, made no effort to shirk responsibility.
‘I read her songs and I think this kid’s a genius. She’s observant, she’s smart and she doesn’t forget a thing,’ he said, heartbreakingly speaking about his late daughter in the present tense (a habit, the documentary reveals, he still has).
‘Something about the Freudian fate, not going through the same s*** that my mum hates. I deserved it, because I did give her mother a lot of s***. That’s what happens when people break up and when men lie to women.’
There is no such mea culpa from those in charge of Amy’s career. Watching the 2015 film, you could be forgiven for concluding that her saviour was Lucian Grainge, the Universal record company boss who forced her to sign a contract in 2008 saying, in his words, ‘you’re never going to perform ever again unless you get clean.’ He added: ‘And God bless her, she did.’
The question of why it was left until she had almost killed herself with a cocktail of Class A drugs and was photographed in the street bleeding into her ballet pumps before the executive took such action is never asked or answered.
If the intervention were as successful as Mr Grainge intimates, then surely the other blinding question is: how different would things have been had such action been taken much earlier? The irony is that though the film glosses over this, an almost identical charge is clearly laid at her father’s door.
Mitch’s pronouncement that the soul star from Southgate didn’t need to be admitted for help in those early days (immortalised in her first big hit, Rehab – ‘I ain’t got the time/ And if my daddy thinks I’m fine’) is highlighted as the great missed turning point.
The multimillion-pound record company is absolved of its duty of care, while culpability is dumped on an out-of-his-depth parent who had no experience of dealing with someone suffering from addiction and the poisonous glare of superstardom. And, unlike in a piece of journalism, where Mitch and Janis would have to be provided a right of reply, neither was given a chance to respond to the serious explicit and implicit allegations – that could stick to them for life.
What you may not realise as the credits roll is that the film was produced by Universal Music (the executive producer was its UK boss). History, they say, is written by the victors. Perhaps when it comes to departed cultural icons, it is penned by the party that makes the definitive movie.
Of course, if solving depression, eating disorders and addiction were as achingly simple as enveloping the person in your arms and taking them home, there would not be millions suffering from the intractable agony of watching a loved one self-destruct.
And if anyone deserves not be wrapped up in a twisted blame game, it is her devoted – and still-grieving – parents. The rehab of their reputation cannot come a moment too soon.
- Reclaiming Amy is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm