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Two Music Documentaries

I watched two music documentaries back-to-back this past weekend, and


found myself rather exhausted from the experience. Perhaps thats
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 its 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 Amys 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 persons 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 Kurts personal life or public life, the cameras always
seemed to be rolling, turning their subjects intoobjects 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 calledTrainwreck. The
Amy documentary is just that. It is the train wreck of Amys 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 Amys 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 Amys 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 Kurts 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 Kurts 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 arent 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 . . . Its 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 arent 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. Its 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 Amys 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 Amys 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, thats 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 addicts hopelessness into the audiences
heart and heads is disgustingly exploitive.
The tribute Brand wrote right after Amys 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; theyre 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 theyre looking through you to somewhere
else theyd 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 Cobains
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 Amys 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 Beans clothes and shoving her
daughters 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 cant even hold their heads up. Montage of Heckis 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. Kurts 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. (Its 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 Amys handwritten lyrics superimposed
on footage of the artist performing, but it rarely delves into the sources of
those lyrics. Kurts 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 Amys
lyrics are on the surface, super-imposed on her image just like everything
else in her career, while Kurts 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 thats 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 thinkINTENT 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 Beans 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 Beans need to make her
dads story public through the evidence he left behind is more
heartbreaking than the stories of two junkies who died.
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 is currently completing a book of her artwork on
Dead Rock Stars which will be featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice,
CA this summer. She is also completing a book of her Dirt 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.