Last Saturday, a friend texted me about this and that, and at the end of her text she wrote 'Have you heard about Amy Winehouse?', then I got another text from another friend, then even my dad 'phoned to tell me what he'd heard on the news. Nobody could believe she'd actually done it. Which is surprising given that ending her life prematurely had seemed to be exactly where she was heading.
I remember putting on the tv one day, about to commence channel hopping but stopping mid reach for the remote control as the video for Rehab started up on the screen. I was drawn in by that extraordinary voice, the jaunty lyrics and the compelling beat. I had to find out who it was, once I did I bought Back to Black and Frank immediately. I've even bought the sheet music for both albums and learned the songs. Often with other music I've added to my singing repertoire, particularly some of the old jazz tunes, I've enjoyed the feel of the music in my voice, but the lyrics drove me nuts. For example, from Black Coffee 'A man is born to go a loving/a woman's born to weep and fret/ to stay at home and tend the oven'...it was such a joy to sing lyrics, while if not exactly feminist, that did reflect some aspects of contemporary sexual politics.
Being born with a huge talent doesn't necessarily mean being born able to cope with the emotional and psychological demands of that talent, and of fame. Talented she was without doubt. At the height of the reaction to her second album, some critics (as often seems to happen with young female artists) claimed that the real force behind the album was the producer, in this case, Mark Ronson. But those witty, sometimes sad, sometimes bawdy lyrics seemed so to be so infused with details from her life that it was hard to imagine them being written by anyone else. And the music was so married to those lyrics that it was hard to imagine them being written by anyone other than the writer of the lyrics. I loved the 60s girl pop feel of the melodies and their arrangements, combined with that smokey, croaky drawl.
But I always thought of her as a woman who did not seem to like herself much. The beehive, the tattoos and the startling eye makeup combined to form an effective shield. She looked like a woman you wouldn't want to pick a fight with, despite her tiny stature. But it seemed like a big act. I remember seeing a film clip which showed the after effects of a self-harming episode, her midriff scored with tiny cuts. She was known to have had an eating disorder, and struggled with body issues. The drugs, alcohol and partying were maybe escapes from that relentless voice in her head telling her how ugly she was, how stupid, what a loser, speaking much louder than the voices outside who loved her. I remember reading a Guardian article about a reporter who spent a day with the paparazzi as they pursued their victims around London. One of these was Winehouse, the writer wrote, amazed, at how the paps yelled abuse and insults at the tiny singer constantly, in the hope of provoking a reaction. It would be hard for even the most self-confident person to retain their self-esteem with that ringing in their ears whenever they stepped outside their door.
I was one of those lucky enough to see her perform, at Brixton Academy November 2007. And I do feel lucky. This was the tour that was labelled such a disaster in the press. Winehouse was at the height of her coke addiction (remember the photos of her apparently removing drugs from a stash in her beehive?) and her then husband was on bail facing serious charges. In later gigs, she was obviously off her face and incoherent on stage, unable to finish songs or to deal with heckling from the crowd. But at the Brixton gig, maybe cos she was virtually on home territory, she was fabulous. Yes, she fluffed her entry and skittered onto stage halfway through 'Addicted', tripping over her guitar cable on route. Yes, the tempo of many of the songs seemed off, and accelerated erratically as they coursed along, but she delivered. She sang her own music, and some excellent Specials cover versions, with skill and energy, adlibbing some new vocal lines in place of already familiar ones. We had a fantastic time, and it felt like a privilege to be there even then, let alone with the benefit of hindsight.
In our world today, talent and mega fame so often go hand in hand. Perhaps we are all fascinated with the lives of beings who seem as near magical as it's possible to be, how it feels to be them and to live their lives. We rarely question the relationship between talent and fame, assuming that the famous are asking for it, enjoying our 24/7 obsession with their lives. It is as if we consume those whose work we love, we use them and burn them up. Maybe all Winehouse wanted to do was make music, and to sing, as she had done all her life, but her talent inevitably drew so much attention. I read in the paper various quotes from the regulars in her local, The Hawley Arms, where she apparently would often get behind the bar and pull pints .and one said
" She was such a lovely person, and to be honest, I don't think fame agreed with her, she was an ordinary girl at heart."
But whatever we think of her addiction, alcoholism, self-harming etc, it's so sad to see a life ended at such a relatively young age, and to know that voice isn't going to be singing any more.
It seems appropriate, following my eulogy for Amy Winehouse, to write about a film that is a meditation on the end of life. But a life ending at what could be seen as the end of its natural span.
From the start, as we see Ewan McGregor clearing out a room, emptying no longer needed medicines down the toilet, the viewer knows that this is a film about moving on. Using flashbacks, we see Oliver and his father Hal (the thoroughly lovely Christopher Plummer), living in the wake of Hal's revelation that he is gay, and has always been so, despite his marriage to Hal's mother. Through flashbacks to Hal's childhood, we see Hal's mother, Georgia, bringing up Oliver. We never see her husband in these scenes, who is always at work, or who knows where.
Hal and Georgia married in 1955, at a time when homosexuality was taboo. Hal renounced his identity as a gay man, Georgia hers as a Jewish woman, living in an anti-Semitic America. To her son (and I expect also to the director, Mike Mills who based this story on events from his own life) this voluntary renunciation of identity is so bizarre as to rate being described in a tone of wonder, complete with illustrations to show how long ago and far away this was. Oliver is of a generation so familiar with identity politics and the individual's right to self-determination, that he can barely conceive of a life lived without fidelity to something as basic as ones sexuality. Sadly Hal only has a short time to live his life as an out gay man, before cancer claims him in much the way it did Georgia several years earlier.
As well as being a film about identity, this film is also about the difficulties of communication. Hal couldn't communicate with his son until late in his life, and Oliver struggles to communicate his grief, as is highlighted by the graffiti slogans he puts on buildings, when introduced to this past time by his friend Eliot. It's easier to spray stuff than say it. This struggle with communication is also played out in Oliver's nascent relationship with a girl he meets at a party in the present time sections of the film; when they meet she has laryngitis and can only communicate through writing. They speak to each other in half sentences and jokes, and their voices are muted during the depiction of their most vigorous conversation.
Georgia's voice is the least present in this film. Hal relates that when they married, she knew about his sexuality, but assumed she could 'cure' him. I wondered how she would have felt, when she failed to do so, and, one assumes, had to live without a full blooded sexual relationship in her life. In terms of the treatment of similar material, I prefer David Leavitt's novel, The Lost Language of Cranes, which doesn't privilege one person's viewpoint over another.
The sadness of the movie's events is leavened by light touches of humour, particularly through the vehicle of Arthur, Hal's Jack Russell terrier, who cannot speak but communicates with Oliver through subtitles. It's a quirky and interesting film (albeit one which drags in places), and kudos to Mike Mills for daring to make such a human film about mourning and loss. And well played to the distribution company, for giving us alternative fare to this summer's endless superhero movies...