Beyond the Stigma: Amy Is a Lesson in How to Treat People With Addiction

As I stood at the concession stand in the bottom of some nameless suburban movie megaplex wasteland before seeing Amy last weekend, a guy behind me in line said, "who wants to see a movie about a woman who drinks herself to death?" I had to restrain myself. I — like most fans — never knew Amy Winehouse, but I loved her. I still love Amy Winehouse. With those feelings have come a strong need to defend her legacy as an incredible musician who was also a human being. It's why I was seeing the movie in the first place. 

This anonymous man's comment reminded me of being a thirteen-year-old obsessed with Nirvana and an adult-like person saying to me, "Who cares about a band fronted by a junkie?" I didn't know what a junkie was, but I knew it wasn't a kind term. As I got older, I realized that when a person is labeled a junkie, they stop being a person. They become a flimsy casualty of other peoples' judgment, a person now defined by what others' think about their perceived behavior and life on this planet. With Amy, those of us who loved and appreciated her music and fought for her humanity got an even deeper look into why we think so highly of Amy Winehouse. For others who may have passed her off as a drunk, a junkie or, even worse, a crackhead (a term that carries even more weight and social stigma than the sometimes romantic notion of just being a junkie), Amy is a chance to see what fans of hers have always seen: a really beautiful person who could sing like a motherfucker. 

In our media-soaked world, I would have thought I had seen every image and video of Amy Winehouse existing that the public has been privy to. In Amy, we get a chance to experience the little bits and pieces of her personality that came through in her songs, but in an even more personal way. Camera phone videos, home VHS tapes and unaired performances display the voice that made her famous. But these little snippets of Winehouse also encapsulate what made her so appealing to be around. She was snarky; she told great stories and did impressions; she had inside jokes and left clever voicemails. She was the kind of ride-or-die friend that was with you until, well, until addiction got in the way. But even then, her best friends from childhood — Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert — and Nick Shymansky, her first manager who was in his teens when he met a teenage Amy, never gave up hope. If anything, this movie works to break open the "27 Club," rock star with drug problems lore that surrounds Amy Winehouse and show the human on the inside of it all. 

Those friends — along with some other folks close to her including famous pals like Yasiin Bay — are the ones who keep Amy's spirit alive. They are the people who make the greatest attempts at supporting her when she's barely hanging on, unlike her vacant father Mitch Winehouse and her on-again-off-again partner in life and drugs, Blake Fielder-Civil. This was a rough experience for me as a viewer; watching Amy was difficult for so many reasons, but one of the hardest was grappling with the idea that this wasn't a movie — it was a documentary about a life. There were moments in the film when I wanted to scream at her dad "What are you doing? Why aren't you helping her?" like there was going to be any different outcome than the one we all know. Even though I know that Amy is gone, it wasn't until the last few moments of Amy when she's shown being removed from her apartment in a body bag that it hit me.

Maybe it felt like more like a movie and less like a documentary because the film was so packed with this unfamiliar footage and new insights into the human being Amy Winehouse was that so many of us on the outside never saw. It wasn't like getting to know a friend better who I had known on the periphery for so long — it was more like getting to know a human I didn't really know at all, but  had come to be the defender of because she was a fellow addict. Being an addict is one of the hardest ways to exist in the limelight — it's like fighting an invisible battle when everyone else already assumes you're dead. Watching Amy's friends fight for her life and beg for her family to support a decision to go to rehab, only to have her daddy literally say she was fine was heartbreaking. It's bad enough when the addict in the picture doesn't want anything to do with recovery; having the world turned against you because you've been labeled an addict and solidified your own punchline by having a hit called "Rehab" only made it feel impossible. 

If anything, I hope Amy becomes a film that teaches us how to treat people in the throes of addiction. I hope it stops the jokes from coming so easily when someone who happens to be famous is going through a hard time. I left the theater feeling sad and angry at the way all of the writers, comedians, late-night talk show hosts, news anchors and other talking heads that shape our pop culture narrative left Amy's legacy. We all have hard times and sometimes those hard times come to envelop the entirety of one's life — but it doesn't mean there isn't a living, breathing human who deserves respect underneath it all. Amy shows that famous or not, addicts are not throwaways; they are just people.
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Bree Davies is a multimedia journalist, artist advocate and community organizer born and raised in Denver. Rooted in the world of Do-It-Yourself arts and music, Davies co-founded Titwrench experimental music festival, is host of the local music and comedy show Sounds on 29th on CPT12 Colorado Public Television and is creator and host of the civic and social issue-focused podcast, Hello? Denver? Are You Still There? Her work is centered on a passionate advocacy for all ages, accessible, inclusive, non-commercial and autonomous DIY art spaces and music venues in Denver.
Contact: Bree Davies