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Two Music Documentaries: Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain

I watched two music documentaries back-to-back this past weekend, and found myself rather exhausted from the experience. Perhaps that’s because by watching these, I went on a 4-hour tour through Dead Rock Star Porn. Playing the role of tourist by watching the despair and tragedy of others’ lives can be a taxing experience.

The first film was Amy (2014), the much anticipated documentary about Amy Winehouse. The second was Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015) – the Kurt Cobain documentary compiled largely from his personal archives (videos, artwork, notebooks).

Neither of these films is great, but it’s interesting to compare them both. The first film Amy has received critical acclaim for being deeply moving and “heart breaking” (as the trailer touts). The documentary claims to be a portrait of the girl behind the name. In reality, it is anything but that. Like the Cobain documentary, Amy is a montage, but what it collects is endless video footage documenting the tragic side of Amy that was so exploited in the tabloid press. We get very little sense of any person other than another dead celebrity and the train wreck of her celebrity life.

A few small glimpses of Amy Winehouse lurk underneath the construction of AMY WINEHOUSE, but mostly the film is an exploitive compilation of video clips of Amy, some filmed with her permission, but most without. Combined, these clips create a kind of filthy Dead Celebrity Porn made by the record company to garner a few extra dollars off Amy’s dead body. Montage of Heck also combines archival material of Kurt Cobain, but this film was made by his family, with his daughter playing a critical role. While the film itself is far from a masterpiece in documentary filmmaking (and at times feels like an infomercial on Kurt Cobain), there is an emotional tension knowing that the movie was made with the endorsement of his daughter.

Kurt is allowed a place to be a “real person” in the film. He owns his addictions, his emotional problems, and his complexities as a person on his terms, not through images from the paparazzi intruding on his life, but rather from the archives of materials he left behind. We see him through footage from home movies and live performances, and interviews with a handful of people (mother, ex-girlfriend, band members, wife) who were close to him in his personal life, not through industry talking heads.

Amy, on the other hand, remains an object presented largely through the lenses that turned her into an object for consumption. The vast majority of footage presented in the film was captured without her permission or with the sole purpose of exposing her addiction and train wreck life for the entertainment of the masses. Nothing the general population likes more than to watch a public figure fail. It makes them feel better about themselves. Sure, Amy is presented as an object for public empathy, but that empathy is ultimately self-serving. It is not about empathizing with a real person’s pain and struggles, but rather making the audience feel good about itself for feeling bad about this bulimic pop star addict who died of a heart attack at age 27.

What both these dead celebrities shared in common is that they always had cameras focused on them, constantly turning their life into a “show.” Whether in Amy and Kurt’s personal life or public life, the cameras always seemed to be rolling, turning their subjects into objects and underscoring that one of the major tragedies of the celebrity life is the lack of privacy. There is no cover for the pop star who always has to be ON. While Amy often finds the cameras intrusive on her privacy and her personhood, Kurt talks directly to the camera, accepting it as part of his life and playing into it, even when he pines for a “normal life” (one without being a public figure constantly under scrutiny by the lens) which he will never have.

It is rather ironic that when I searched YouTube for the Amy trailer, the first thing that came up was the trailer for a movie called Trainwreck. The Amy documentary is just that. It is the train wreck of Amy’s life. Watching it, the audience participates in a kind of tawdry voyeurism. While the movie promises to deliver the girl behind the name, what it really delivers is pretty much everything that was fucked-up and tragic about Amy Winehouse in a linear train wreck, until she dies and we are given a vivid description of her dead body (looking like she was asleep). It takes us on a rollercoaster ride with Amy’s depressed, starving and drug addicted image giving us a vicarious thrill of empathy and compassion that only serves the audience and does nothing to make Amy into a real person.

By the time, I got to the end of Amy, I felt like I had spent 90 minutes flipping through tabloid papers at the checkout stand, including feeling smudged and dirty by what I just watched, especially since so much of the footage presented was taken without Amy’s consent: Amy ducking under a blanket; Amy hiding her head from media while walking down the streets; Amy being filmed by her father even when she directly tells him not to.

In other words, Amy, as a dead person, has no voice and no say on what material can and cannot be manipulated to present her life and death. Dead celebrities have no voice. The very media that turned them into larger-than-life objects, strips them of their core humanity in both life and death. In her death, Amy becomes voiceless, even though her voice is what propelled her to fame and death in the first place.

The same could be said for Kurt Cobain, except the Cobain documentary is largely compiled of his own art and writing, material from the life that he actually lived and the ephemera he created. All the video images are ones where he clearly consented to being photographed (concert footage, public interviews, home movies), even though it was mostly the media and Courtney Love doing the filming. Also, the Cobain documentary stops time a month before Kurt’s death. Printed words on the screen tell us he died, but the film does not exploit that footage of his death that has been played to death in the media. (That timeless celebrity image of Kurt’s jeans and sneakers in the out building where he blew his brains out in his Seattle home are never shown in the film.)

I am an artist currently working on a Dead Rock Star series of drawings and accompanying book. I have always said that Amy Winehouse is very difficult to draw because there are so few images of her available where she is not hidden behind the construction of her celebrity – the eyeliner, the hair and the cakes of makeup covering any blemishes or scrawls of humanity. The film also has very little to offer below that surface. The Cobain doc also addresses the artifice of celebrity, but Kurt confronts his role as pop icon with self-aware irony, as he awkwardly dyes his hair and dons wigs mocking his own position as a pop star.

One authentic moment in Amy occurs when Winehouse talks about her depression. She is very young, and she says that playing music and writing songs is the only thing that helps her fight off her demons. She loved playing guitar and singing. Interestingly, when she became a pop star, she lost the guitar as she became more and more of an object. Kurt Cobain says similar things – that music was an outlet for his dark emotions –, but he got to keep the guitar and the voice. Is it a gender thing? Boys with guitars versus bulimic girls in eyeliner? Whatever the case, someone using artistic expression to cope with emotional depression and anxiety being thrown into the constantly gazing public eye can be really destructive. Kurt and Amy aren’t the only casualties of gifted people propelled to stardom, only to find that they are strangled by it. (See the 27 Club, of which both Kurt and Amy are members.) Neither Amy nor Kurt were cut out for celebrity, yet both were also destined for it . . . It’s a lose-lose battle. Just like the addiction that killed both of them.

Other moments of “authenticity” in the Amy doc include when she performs with Tony Bennet and he talks about her as one of the greatest jazz singers of all time. Bennet openly says, “Jazz singers aren’t supposed to perform in front of 50,000 people.” Amy wanted to be a jazz singer. She ended up being a pop star which in turn ended up being her death ticket. This movie is just an extension of the pop star created by the music industry and which ultimately destroyed her as a person.

Certainly in the vast quantity of footage of Amy that we are given, we can glimpse a girl who is struggling, a tragic mess of a human being. And the film hammers that into the audience, repeating over and over and over again the catch words: ADDICTION and BULIMIA – the two things that killed Amy. As the trailer states, the film is “a heartbreaking journey.” But it is also an exploitive one. Amy falls into that realm of art that barters in tragedy as spectator sport. People can watch it and feel bad for Amy and then somehow feel good about themselves for feeling bad about her. It’s a kind of Tragic Death Tourism, and the audience rarely considers why the movie was made, how it was made, where the proceeds are going, and what it actually is accomplishing.

Basically the movie resurrects Amy’s dead body to line the pockets of record company executives and probably her dad who suddenly reappeared in her life once Amy got famous. He wanted his piece of pie, and clearly he is still getting some.

The one time dad intervened and forced Amy into rehab was so she could appear on the Grammies. In other words, there was self-interest for him. But as we know from Amy’s song “Rehab” (They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said no, no, no . . .), no junkie can be forced to rehabilitate. It has to be a personal choice.

I was curious about what Russell Brand had to say about Amy, since he makes a brief appearance in the film but never speaks. The only thing I found was a Facebook entry where he states that the movie made him cry and brought back all the pain. Yes, that’s what this documentary does. It turns Amy into an object of pain. Watching someone consumed by and die from addiction is devastating. It is a hopeless enterprise, and I personally feel that the movie pounding the addict’s hopelessness into the audience’s heart and heads is disgustingly exploitive.

The tribute Brand wrote right after Amy’s death is a true, tragic and touching reality check on the disease of addiction. I always say addiction is the great leveler, and Brand hammers that point home:

All addicts, regardless of the substance or their social status share a consistent and obvious symptom; they’re not quite present when you talk to them. They communicate to you through a barely discernible but unignorable veil. Whether a homeless smack head troubling you for 50p for a cup of tea or a coked-up, pinstriped exec foaming off about his speedboat, there is a toxic aura that prevents connection. They have about them the air of elsewhere, that they’re looking through you to somewhere else they’d rather be. And of course they are. The priority of any addict is to anaesthetise the pain of living to ease the passage of the day with some purchased relief.

Russell Brand on the death of Amy Winehouse

Brand knows addiction well, and what he says also could be applied to Cobain. Montage of Heck pulls no punches when it comes to Cobain’s heroin addiction or his destructive relationship with Courtney Love. However, we see much more of a “real person” in the Cobain doc. Even the crazy footage of Kurt and Courtney (filmed by Courtney, of course) shows two people who were drawn to each other and fed off each other (just like Amy and her former husband junkie Blake Fielder-Civil). Both documentaries expose co-dependent addictive relationships. However, in the footage in the Amy documentary, when she is getting wasted with Blake, Amy is not particularly a willing participant and does not want to put on a show for the camera. These scenes seem particularly violating to me, filmed for the sole purpose of making Amy’s demise a public spectacle. Footage in the Cobain documentary shows a wasted couple joined in their mutual fucked-upness and embracing it together. Love and Cobain seem like two kids who never wanted to grow up and who were playing for the camera . . . willingly. There clearly is CONSENT in the Cobain footage, not in the Winehouse footage.

Since Kurt and Courtney seem like out-of-control kids (when they are filming themselves), when a real kid enters the picture – Frances Bean –, the film becomes emotionally tense and uncomfortable, especially since we know that Frances Bean helped make the movie. Courtney is continuously pulling off Frances Bean’s clothes and shoving her daughter’s young body and face into the camera. The film captures the couple as they go from doting parents to relapsed junkies trying to play house when they can’t even hold their heads up. Montage of Heck is also a train wreck of a movie, but somehow because the daughter is also behind the camera in the making of the film, it has a raw emotional authenticity lacking in the Amy doc.

The primary difference between the two pop figures plays out in the films. Amy quickly lapsed into constructed identity in her music career while Kurt constantly skirted the line between celebrity and authenticity. Amy sung in an affected voice, one remove from the raw emotions that were behind the lyrics; Kurt spat out his unabashed feelings with no mask. The films reflect this split. One film (Amy) is an overt construction of a construction; the other (Montage of Heck) takes personal ephemera to show the tortured soul who founded Nirvana and then died in a state that was quite the opposite of the name of the band. Amy died when her heart stopped beating, her constructed image frozen in time. Kurt’s death, with his brains blown out by a shotgun, was as messy as the life he never hid from.

Both movies can be seen as exploitive because we always want MORE MORE MORE of these celebrities, especially after they tragically die. A dead pop star is infinitely more interesting in the public eye than a live one. (“It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” says Neil Young in words Kurt Cobain lived and died by and which were the final words of his suicide note.) Pop stars become bigger in death than in life (when they were already too big for the world), and music documentaries tend to play on this dilemma. This makes it hard to discern where to draw the line between serious documentary filmmaking and exploitation.

Maybe I am projecting, but I feel that Montage of Heck, which is literally a montage of the materials that Kurt left behind with a few interviews with friends and family, is something that Frances Bean felt she had to make in tribute to her dead father, some kind of act of reconciliation or closure that could not have been easy. Amy on the other hand features footage of Amy (with and without consent) and mostly interviews from industry people. There are snippets from friends and family, but mostly it is an industry film. There is a lack of true emotional investment that we get in the Cobain documentary.

The Amy documentary does show Amy’s handwritten lyrics superimposed on footage of the artist performing, but it rarely delves into the sources of those lyrics. Kurt’s lyrics and notebooks are included in the film, but we also find out more about the source of those words from close friends and family rather than industry representatives. In fact, Kurt spends a lot of time lifting his middle finger to the industry, flipping off the corporate culture that made him and broke him. It makes sense, actually, that Amy’s lyrics are on the surface, super-imposed on her image just like everything else in her career, while Kurt’s hand-scrawled words stand alone with all their raw intensity.

Also, Kurt was a multi-faceted artist, so we see his own art (including his collages and drawings) brought to disturbingly animated life and adhering to his “living” aesthetics, with his guttural screeches of outrage punctuating his images. The film is largely constructed from artifacts made by Kurt and offered by his daughter, not from unconsented footage captured by paparazzi.

The trailer for the Cobain documentary opens with question: “Who are you?” I guess that’s what we want to know when we watch these kinds of films, but really we have to remember that documentaries are not truth. We will always be watching constructed identities, composed of materials with the intent of the filmmaker and not the artist represented. The movies are constructions just like the artists who they document. Therein resides the tension – assuming something or someone is real – when media will always mold the truth for hidden intent.

Montage of Heck is not great, but it left me with a lot of complex emotions and questions. Amy is also not great, but it left me feeling dirty like I was part of the problem that destroyed her. I think INTENT is the bottom line. Clearly both films were made with the intent of making a profit on the artists’ legacies, but I think that Frances Bean’s intent goes far beyond dollar value. There is no price tag on coming to terms with having really fucked-up parents, one of whom is now dead. She pays tribute to her dead dad and has to acknowledge her living mom (the nightmarishly clownish and narcissistic Love), and witnessing Frances Bean’s need to make her dad’s story public through the evidence he left behind is more heartbreaking than the stories of two junkies who died.

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Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

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