The Jazz Singer

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that “sometime this week, Beth and I are going to see Asif Kapadia’s documentary, Amy.” I saw his movie about the late Brazilian Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna on a plane last year, and thought it was very powerful.

More adjectives

Well, it turns out I was lying. Or, I didn’t have the full facts to hand. We went to see Amy last night.

[Sign up for the Apoplexy Tiny Letter here, for more words to while away the day.]

The first cut of Senna comprised seven hours of footage that was edited down into a 1h 46m long film. Amy was sewn together in a similar fashion, from footage of chat-shows and awards-events, private video, and interviews.

Between 2006 – when Amy’s second album, Back to Black, was released – and her death in 2011, I was working as a financial transactions lawyer in Manhattan. So for me, the bulk of that period passed under the shadow of The Financial Crisis of 2007-08.

Conceptual art goes corporate

So, while I was aware of the global sensation that was Rehab, I knew Amy Winehouse mostly as the tragic figure of fun mocked by David Letterman, Jay Leno, Frankie Boyle, and a host of others as she spiralled towards her seemingly inevitable fate. Amy’s presence in the story by this time was confused, incoherent, and strung out.

Coming from this mostly uninformed place, I was charmed by the character presented by the first half of Amy – witty, talented, and possessed of a sharp intelligence. As songs from Frank and later Back to Black soundtrack the film, the lyrics appear on the screen, and I think they’re really good.

And charismatic. (Amy Winehouse by Karen Robinson, 2004.)

The young Amy explains that her belief in those lyrics, her songs, is what powers her performances. If the events they describe didn’t happen, they’re not for the jazz singer. And one could oversimplify and be pat, and identify this belief as the vital thread in her decline. The need to live the life on the edge and generate the extremes of emotion that weave great songs.

I bet if [Chris Martin] heard his stuff – if it wasn’t by him – he would be like: ‘Who is that wanker?’

As Peter Bradshaw’s review of Amy at Cannes enumerates, a list of advisers, promoters, managers, family members, friends, boyfriends, and associates pass through the story and “jostle to assure us that they themselves were not responsible for Amy Winehouse’s descent into drugs and overwork.”

But we don’t get much insight into the workings of the music industry at this level

Needless to say, in the wake of Amy‘s success various members of this cast of characters have emerged to tell their version of the story directly in interviews. Amy’s father, Mitch, says how much he enjoyed Senna, and how he felt Amy’s story was in good hands. But apparently the finished article doesn’t have the same ring of truth for him as its predecessor. “They’re trying to present me in the worst possible light,” he says.

Nick Shymansky, who was Amy’s manager between 1999 and 2006, comes out of the movie and this interview pretty well. And he’s complementary about Amy, the film. He says, “It’s very easy to look back, it’s very hard to see things all around you at the time.” And then there’s Amy’s ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, of whom Shymansky says, “I’ve been very angry with [him] in the past, but at the end of the day he wasn’t a grownup, he was a lost kid who had his own issues.” Mitch Winehouse says Blake’s “the biggest low-life scumbag that God ever put breath into”.

A host of perspectives at Thirty Frames a Second.

Amy Winehouse said that her song-writing required truth, or authenticity – a word my advisor warned me to be very wary of when discussing my critical essay on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Which is almost entirely inauthentic. Compare the other documentary (of sorts) that Beth and I saw recently, 20,000 Days on Earth. The Birthday Party’s early gigs were promoted as festivals of violence. After becoming “associated with their ‘prodigious consumption of drugs and alcohol'”, the band’s bassist Tracy Pew died of a brain haemorrhage a few years after the group disbanded.

Did someone say, “Him, an age abhorrer”?

Nick Cave writes songs and books and poetry that often seem confessional. Yet at the same time, he also seems – if one looks closely – to be protective of his space outside of “Nick Cave”. As he says in 20,000 Days on Earth, “At the end of the last century, I ceased to exist.” As far as the public is concerned, it has been the character of Nick Cave that has occupied the limelight.

Maybe that’s why his wife makes only a fleeting appearance in the movie, while Kylie Minogue has a speaking part reflecting on her time singing and portraying a character in his song Where the Wild Roses Grow. As an actress, Kylie seems very cognisant of the dividing lines.

They call me The Wild Rose, but my name was Eliza Day. Not Kylie.

I’ve written previously about the coruscating confessional poetry of Sharon Olds. Much of its power is derived from its profoundly personal and violently honest nature. Yet, the gentle, thoughtful nature that comes across in Olds’s interviews often seems quite at odds with her voice in poetry.

I’ve often written in the blog about the importance of creating a positive personal narrative (and always, a large dollop of luck) in the aftermath of a catastrophic stroke. This needn’t be positive in every detail. There’s a positive aspect to Sharon Olds’s work that seems to be helpful to her, even when it’s at it’s most abrasive.

There was a young man from Baghdad…

This weekend, I was working on two particular pieces of writing. One was a law firm satire set in the aftermath of The Financial Crisis of 2007-07. (Wait! Someone dies on the second page!) The other was for Nerd Bait, and was a fantastical fairy tale.

The funny thing is, if you asked me which one was more true, I’d say that everything that happened in each story happened to me or someone I’ve met. And nothing in either story ever happened to me or anyone I ever met. In fact, when I was talking to my supervisor about the law firm piece, she identified one particular line and said, “That’s a bit much, isn’t it?” And that was the line that was most directly lifted from a real event!

A Will Ferrell movie Ricky made an effort to see?!?!

So, again, I’m left to reflect on the power of stories. Amy is a powerful movie that left me looking at an apparently familiar story in a new light. And maybe one of the messages of the movie – as well as keeping an open mind to the people around us – is the importance of pushing past the oh-so-very-British crutches of sarky humour and booze to maintain real connections. And if any stroke survivors or their loved ones are passing through, I hope you somehow have the good fortune to be able to construct the most positive stories you can in a brutally difficult situation.

Sending good vibes to you all….

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9 thoughts on “The Jazz Singer

  1. Answering the queues one at a time this week.

    1: Great lyricist. Dylan is an obvious answer but I rather like the guy from the hold steady. “I surrounded myself with doctors and deep thinkers / but big heads and soft bodies make for lousy lovers.” I mean, that plus a great classic rock band is just what rock (the american version) was meant to do.

    2: Not Kurt Cobain. I think the best died young musician in the last bit was Hendrix.

    3: I just binge watched FX’s “Married”, because Hodgman was tweeting about it, and I am hipster sheeple wannabe. That surprised me with how gentle and crude it was at the same time. Does that count?

    4: I was in a band which broke up live on stage after the guitarist shouted anti-semitic remarks at a keyboard player. (I played bass)

    5: We are digging the season 9 surprises on the tweety box, and wonder is Arya a young river, a different clara, a romana – who knows?

    1. 1. Co-signed. The lyrics on that whole album are pretty ace. No doubt I’ve mentioned previously that when we saw Frightened Rabbit at Terminal 5, Craig Finn came out for the encore and they all covered Brooooooce.
      2. Jimi was huge for me – particularly blues Jimi. The version of Red House on Are You Experienced. It might not push the envelope, but…. Of course, late teens, post-discovery Ricky (obnoxious version) used to be dismissive of Jimi, just to be difficult. (Damn – the lyrical structure of Red House isn’t that different to Salt and Sand. Who knew?! Well, they are both pretty trad.)
      3. Well, it’s certainly not on my radar, so it counts. Sounds like just the sort of thing for Sappy Stroke Bloke. Awful Stroke Bloke, meanwhile, is enjoying The League. Ruxin’s stroke, man! And speaking of hipsters, Escher should have been a mixologist in Greenpoint. Look at that guy!
      4. That fits the bill.
      5. I’ve been out of the online Whovian spoiler world for a while. But I am surprised that Romana hasn’t been resurrected yet. I mean, she’s a perfect Moff vehicle. (Good? Bad? Discuss.) It’ll be fun to have Missy back. But I have to say, the more I see of him, the more I think they missed a trick in not setting up Balderdash Cummerbund against Matt Smith’s Doctor. His Kahn was the saving grace of the otherwise disappointing Star Trek: Into Dorkness.

      1. 3/ I love the league. It is my guiltiest of guilty pleasures. I’m glad we are at 100% nerd bait watching. And ruxin’s stroke is by far the best fictional stroke I’ve seen.

        5/ It would be great if it was romana. I don’t know if Moff has the courage to bring her back. But… it could be great especially in contrast to the somewhat cloying Clara. Agree on Benedictine Otterbush and his saving Kahn, but if he had been on the doctor, wouldn’t we have had some sort of moff-style event-horizion from which no amount of snarky self assured skinny guy and loving but plucky manic pixie dream girl with a heart of adventure could escape?

  2. I’m an Amy fan. The artist, not the film. But that’s probably only because I haven’t seen the film yet.

    I could never be a lyricist because I’m musically illiterate. And I could never be a poet because my poetry comes from such brutally authentic places that I only write a poem like once every 8 years and even then I’ll probably keep it to myself. I wouldn’t know how to write a poem that’s not confessional or deeply personal.

    Fiction on the other hand is, well, fictional. Probably all of the fiction I write has a core of emotional honesty to it, but every story is stretched, imagined, inspired, fabricated, amalgamated. I can dive into non-me characters and share their reality. For me fiction writing is more blood, sweat and tears than naked creature in the desert eating his own heart.

  3. Oops, I did it again. I’m THAT drunken uncle that shows up, gets all inappropriate, makes a scene. Here your post was sitting with all its inspirational positive vibe messages. And I stumble in bringing up naked heart-guzzling creatures.

    At least I’ll entertain the teenagers.

    1. Ha! I love it! You know that the other invisible ink that’s scrawled all over this blog is unremitting darkness, as flagged up by Paul’s remarks on my preference for Batman over Supes? Unremittingly Positive Stroke Bloke is just my Bruce Wayne.

      Speaking of, there’s a website all set up here, if you want to share your bleak poetry with the world. We exist, so there’s gotta be an audience for it, right? Anyway, no excuses. And musical illiteracy and lyric-writing are far from mutually exclusive, I can assure you. You just need a guy. I’ve been reading about EMF this morning – don’t ask – and their main, classically-trained songwriter once remarked:

      Derry’s the least active in a musical sense, but he’s so involved. I take a tune in and he says turn it up or make it more manic. They’re simple observations but they’re important because I get a bit wrapped up in the writing.

      Musical Fauvism! Yay!

      Just for you:

      1. I could never be a lyricist because I’m musically illiterate. And I could never be a poet because my poetry comes from such brutally authentic places that I only write a poem like once every 8 years and even then I’ll probably keep it to myself. I wouldn’t know how to write a poem that’s not confessional or deeply personal.

        Ron – I could turn this paragraph into a song if I just removed the “like” before the word once.

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