We lost Amy Winehouse four years ago on July 23, 2011, but the jazz-pop singer clearly lives on in many of the singers of today like Adele, Sam Smith and Emeli Sandé. The critically acclaimed documentary Amy, directed by Asif Kapadia, is humanizing the star beyond the tragedies. Playing in select cities across the country, Amy is heartbreaking, powerful and a must-see.
Nick Shymansky was Amy Winehouse’s original manager and the man who helped her become a five-time Grammy winner. He saw her epic rise to superstardom and the extreme downfall, which the tabloids chronicled. Here, Shymansky opens up about Amy’s authentic connection to soul music, the ferociousness of fame… and that 2008 n-word video, which shocked many of her fans.
When I first heard Amy Winehouse it was on urban radio, I thought she was a Black artist. Why do you think Amy had a connection to soul music that’s usually reserved for African-American artists?
You’re born with that talent. You can appreciate the people that are on another level. It just so happens it’s quite rare to be a white girl with a voice on that level. She just had an exceptionally soulful voice. For me, the most soulful singers, they’re born with the most incredible voices, but they have a real understanding of the connection between their music and their vocal delivery — Amy had that. When I first started out as a manager, the album that was really inspiring around my age, this is between ’96 and 2000, was The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I remember listening to that record, looking for talent, thinking I’m never going to find anyone on that level, definitely not from London. It’s not going happen — then Amy comes along.
Would you agree that Amy Winehouse was one of the first celebrities to be brutalized by "new media,” in terms of blogs, message boards and social media?
Yeah, we’ve all got iPhones and Twitter accounts and YouTube in our pockets now. You didn’t have that back when the first record [Frank] came out. That is part of what makes it such an interesting observation because you can see how someone’s been caught up. Right as Amy’s career was exploding, ironically her health was nose-diving, it was the change, the speed and the demand for images. You can fall out of a nightclub in London and LA would hear about it in a minute. So yeah, that’s played a massive part in making it more stressful for Amy.
If Amy would’ve never become famous, do you think she’d still be alive?
I can make really compelling arguments that maybe that would be the case, but we just don’t know. Even if she really did go to rehab that particular time in 2005, who knows what it would have turned out like. The thing that makes me really sad and angry, I just don’t feel like enough was done to get her on the right track, but we’ll never know. That’s the saddest thing.
The film is a cautionary tale about fame in many ways.
I think it makes fame look pretty horrendous. The thing is, being famous was once a repercussion of being brilliant and it’s gone the other way now. People are famous for being famous. So most people assume that if someone’s famous, they really want to be rich, famous and glamorous. But some people are just brilliant at what they do and because of that, they become famous. There’s a big difference because Amy was never looking for the fame. That doesn’t mean she didn’t want to get acclaim as a musician or work with the best producers, or make music videos — all the things that come with music. People just think, “Well, if you want to sing, you’ve got to be famous,” or you can’t have one thing without the other. I think you can and I think it should be respected when someone doesn’t want to be hounded and needs a bit of space from being popular.
People say Amy is a member of the 27 Club, celebrities who died at 27 (Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jean Michel Basquiat). Do you believe Amy Winehouse was a part of the 27 Club?
It’s the biggest load of b******t I’ve ever heard in my life! We’ve got to drop this 27 Club. It’s really dangerous because, in a weird way, it romanticizes it. And subconsciously, if you’re some depressed kid somewhere going through some s**t, God forbid you see that as some badge of honor. I think it’s very dangerous. Without anyone meaning to, it glamorizes dying at 27.
What do you think made Amy an addict? Was it fame, experimenting, Blake [Fielder-Civil]?
There’s so many threads, and you can’t just bring out one thread on its own. They all link up and I think what’s really powerful about the film is it doesn’t point fingers at people. It’s just showing you some bad judgments, some personalities that were around her, factual stuff that went on. I don’t think you can say it’s any one thing that killed Amy and you can’t completely take away her responsibility. It’s just very sad and I think that, overall, maybe things could’ve been shut down with a bit more force than they were. But it’s way too complicated, it’s a whole chain of events.
In 2008, a video came out of Amy singing a song with racial slurs, including the n-word. It really shocked some of her fans. Do you know the background of the video or what made her do that?
I don’t, at all, because I wasn’t working with her. I don’t know what you’re taking about, but I would say that Amy was very high. There was a lot of entrapment. People were trying to capture stuff. Lots of people were selling stories and trying to get videos to really dark her out. What wouldn’t happen is anyone ever saying Amy was racist. She was well-rounded. It would be a bit unfair to her legacy to highlight anything that could have been prejudice or racist. She had friends from different walks of life. When you’ve got a crack pipe in your mouth and a lot of bad people trying to egg you on, God knows what you’re capable of.
What’s your reaction to Amy’s last boyfriend [Reg Traviss] saying the documentary is a mis-characterization of her?
I think there’s no way Asif was going to make this film and please everyone. I think anyone who knew Amy for the last two years of her life was probably quite limited in how well they knew her. Those were the last years of her being the least clear version of Amy. She was in a bad way. She had been through quite a rough ride. Before Back to Black, there were 22 years, 23 years of her life where she didn’t have an alcohol problem, she’d never smoked crack, she wasn’t famous, and that’s a totally different Amy from who people saw.
Do you talk to Blake [Fielder-Civil] at all?
No. I don’t, I have no interest in talking to him. He had a terrible, terrible effect on Amy. I don’t blame people. It’s not going to bring her back. It’s not my sort of purpose.
What do you think people can learn from this documentary?
We live in an era where people are so quick to be mean on Twitter and say such heavy things online. Hopefully, the movie creates a bit of conversation about the way people are treated in public, how famous people are treated and how fame is seen — and also depression. I think that’s the biggest thing, depression. We’re in the dark age of depression and people still don’t understand it. It’s not talked about enough, it should be. Asif said something that I totally agree with — when the film starts, you get these beautiful green eyes and this youthful look in her eyes. As the film goes through, her eyes start to glaze over and eventually get quite dark and look derelict. I think her eyes through the film sum up what was going on. It was really cruel. To see paparazzi knocking into her then asking her what her problem is just to get a picture or her going to the doctor’s or clinic and getting hounded. It was a very bad job of the people around her at that time to not anticipate a little bit more what was happening and try to protect her.
Some of the final scenes where she was forced to perform...why were they putting her on stage in those last performances when she couldn’t even talk?
Man, you’d have to ask them but I was pretty disgusted with it for a long time. I just didn’t understand it. Even if Amy was in good health, she didn’t need to do that many shows. The album had been so successful. You look at Sade’s career, she puts the record out, she tours and she’s left alone — brilliant career, fantastic career. That’s someone that wants to make music, wants to be in music, but doesn’t really care for the fame. That’s what Amy should have been. For me, I don’t understand how anyone, other than for financial interest, can justify putting her on, rolling her out...that killed her in the long run.
Amy is playing in select cities now.
(Photos from left: Getty Images/Getty Images for MTV, Monica Schipper/Getty Images)