Amy Winehouse, the Grammy-winning singer and songwriter who died at the age of 27 from alcohol poisoning, is perhaps as famous for her drug use as for her talent. So it’s no wonder that earlier this week in a packed movie theater watching Amy, a newly released documentary about her life and tragic death, I sensed that we, the audience members, were searching for someone to blame: What if her father hadn’t said she was fine? What if her mother had known that her eating disorder wasn’t a phase, but a serious condition that required treatment? What if her husband, who struggled with addiction himself, hadn’t introduced her to hard drugs? What if the media had given her a break?
Yet assigning blame is at the very root of misunderstanding addiction. Despite the fact that addiction has been recognized as a disease since the 1950s, one-third of Americans view it as moral failing, according to a 2012 survey from CASAColumbia, a major research organization that addresses issues of addiction. This may be one reason only about 10 percent of the 23 million Americans struggling with addiction receive treatment.
Similarly, it’s this misunderstanding that led Amy to become the butt of insensitive jokes based on the public display of her illness, with a handful of cringe-worthy wisecracks by Jay Leno, George Lopez, and other comedians making it into the movie. Those clips were part of a stream of recordings that included candid videos shot by friends, performance footage, and paparazzi flashes that not only take the audience back in time, but hand us a behind-the-scenes pass to Amy’s rise to fame. Powerful imagery is complemented by interviews from her family and friends, as well as her own words that foreshadow the dark road ahead. As the scenes from her childhood and young adulthood unfold, her struggle with alcohol emerges long before her hit “Rehab” topped the charts, and, as is often the case, was complicated by mental illness.
If we must blame something for Amy’s untimely death, then let’s take a hard look at stigma and the lack of understanding about what substance misuse and mental health issues really are. Amy, directed by acclaimed British filmmaker Asif Kapadia, provides an opportunity for people to witness and begin to understand the impact of addiction on individuals and families—and reflect on their own attitudes toward the disease and those affected by it. Indeed, one of the most disturbing parts of the film is footage of Amy’s performance in Serbia, where she was booed off the stage by angry fans because she was too intoxicated to sing coherently. You can’t help but feel bitterness and shame at seeing a crowd disregard the wellbeing of a woman who was fading before their very eyes.
Amy’s last recording was a duet with singer Tony Bennett, who said, “Some people think that anyone could sing jazz, but they can’t. It’s a gift of learning how to syncopate but it’s also a spirit that you’re either born with or you’re not. And Amy was born with that spirit.” Viewers may be surprised to discover that Amy was a quick-witted young woman with a wonderful sense of humor who was tremendously talented—but they shouldn’t be. Addiction doesn’t discriminate, nor does it define.