Amy Winehouse, Iconic British Soul Singer, Dies at 27

Amy Winehouse, Iconic British Soul Singer, Dies at 27

Amy Winehouse, the iconic British soul singer, was found dead on Saturday in her London home. She was 27. The English singer found international fame with her smoky, hip-hop take on retro-soul, but she soon became a fixture of tabloid newspapers as her problems with drugs and alcohol brought about a strikingly public career collapse. The long, pathetic spectacle brought joy only to the jackals of the British tabloids, which sneered in big headlines at each new downturn.

Ms. Winehouse became one of the most acclaimed young singers of the 2000s, selling millions of albums, winning five Grammy Awards and kicking off the British trend of retro-soul and R&B that continues today. Ms. Winehouse had a public image that seemed almost defiantly self-destructive. In her songs, Winehouse sang alcohol-soaked regrets of failed romances, and for many listeners the lyrics to the song Rehab, which won her three of the five Grammy Awards she received in 2008, crystallized her public persona: “They tried to make me go to rehab,” she sang, “I said, No, no, no.”

Ms. Winehouse had not released an album since Back to Black, but recently she appeared to be trying to revive her career. However, last month she canceled a brief European comeback tour after a last-ever disastrous performance in Belgrade, during which she appeared too intoxicated to perform properly.

Read more about Amy Winehouse in today’s New York Times here.

Amy Winehouse: Back To Black (Last-Ever Performance, Belgrade, 2011)

Amy Winehouse: Rehab

Amy Winehouse: Live at BBC Sessions (3/8/2007)

Slide Show: Amy Winehouse, Iconic British Soul Singer, Dies at 27

(Please Click Image to View Slide Show)

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Highbeams: The Darker Notions of Habit

Highbeams: The Darker Notions of Habit

i wonder who in the single thing
made the night and its ugly dreams
.”

Highbeams is a hypnotically engrossing experimental short film by the young English filmmaker Thomas F. Midgley.  The film was created to explore the darker notions of habit.  Was it all just an ugly nighttime dream, or maybe not?

Highbeams: The Darker Notions of Habit

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Robert Downey, Jr: Iron Man Thrilled to be Back from the Dark Side

Robert Downey, Jr: From Sam Taylor-Wood’s Crying Men (2002-2004)

Robert Downey, Jr: The Darker Years

It was a while in coming, but in 1996 the police officers who had stopped Downey noticed that he was carrying an unloaded .357 Magnum, along with small amounts of heroin and cocaine. Just a month later, he was cited for trespassing and being under the influence of a controlled substance after he mistook a neighbor’s house for his own and fell asleep in a child’s bedroom. His life rapidly turned into a series of court dates and drug relapses. In 2000, he was apprehended by police in a hotel room with cocaine and a Wonder Woman costume.

There were rehabs that did not work, followed by jails that did not impress, ending up in his having to serve hard time, twice, including a one-year stint in a state prison where he had to fight to find a place to stand. Just four months after Downey’s August 2000 prison release, he was arrested again, on a Thanksgiving weekend for alleged cocaine and Valium possession and being under the influence of drugs. The Valium charge was reduced to a misdemeanor in May 2001. Downey was sent back to drug rehabilitation and put on three-years probation after his July 16, 2001, no-contest plea to the November 2000 drug possession charges.

Elton John and Sam Taylor-Wood: Downey’s Return to Acting

It is usually reported that it was Mel Gibson who gave Downey his first post-rehab film break, in 2003’s The Singing Detective; as the producer, it’s reported that Gibson put up the insurance money for his friend. However, Downey’s real first acting job after being ordered into the drug treatment program in July 2001 came less than two-weeks later, thanks to Elton John and Elton’s friend Sam Taylor-Wood. When Taylor-Wood suggested to Elton the idea of having an actor lip-syncing to the song in the video for the single I Want Love, both Taylor-Wood and Elton thought Downey would be perfect, and the video ended up being a one-shot video centered on Downey.

The video consists of Downey walking around an empty, lonely building (actually, Greystone Manor in Beverly Hills) at the end of July 2001, lip-synching the song, I Want Love. It has been reported that Elton and Taylor-Wood arranged for Downey to be granted a one-day pass from rehab in order to do the filming. Looking back, Taylor-Wood described the experience as one where, “The whole process of making it involved such serendipity, everything just slotted into place really beautifully. Between Elton asking me to do the video and its airing on MTV was less than two weeks. It was an unbelievably fast turnaround.” The video also was included in Elton’s subsequent concert tour and was shown on a big screen onstage while he sang the song.

I Want Love: The Paradox of Love

I Want Love, the Elton John music video produced by Taylor-Wood, becomes an awkwardly painful statement from Robert Downey about the paradox of love. Noting that he is a man carrying the heavy and aching weight of self-destructive baggage, Downey’s desperate self basically says, “I want love, but I want nothing you do or say to affect me, I am who I am.” In its encounter with the other, the self wished to affirm its absolute independence, even though its need for the other and the other’s similar wish gave the lie to it.

I Want Love: Elton John and Robert Downey Jr. (2001)

Directed by Sam Taylor Wood

Pietà: An Icon of Exhaustion and Distress

Sam Taylor-Wood:

“Doing it [the filming of I Want Love] was fun. It was such a different experience, because I felt I didn’t have much to lose, it’s not a world I wanted to go on and make a career in. On that day, I think there were 16 10-minute takes before we found the right one. When we got the perfect take, we were all so excited, we didn’t want the day to end.

Afterwards there was still lots of film left. So we said, “Come on, let’s play, let’s make some things.” I’d just been to Rome and seen Michelangelo’s Pietà in St Peter’s. So I said, “Right, let’s do a Pietà.” There was something very natural about the process of doing that. He was exhausted, I was exhausted, but we were both quite elated. The Pietà video consisted of me propping him up. The whole experience of doing the music video and the Pietà, was a tremendous release.

Why did Taylor-Wood decide to do a moving piece of Pietà rather than a still one? The Pietà, for instance, could have been a still. Taylor-Wood responded, “With that piece I wanted to see the struggle, to see the weight, so to speak. You can see the muscles in my arms and neck straining, and my breathing is really laboured. It’s silent, but you can see me heaving to keep him held up. I drop him a bit, and pick him up, and drop him again. You couldn’t do that in a photograph in the same way.”

In Pietà, the draped body of Robert Downey Jr, laid out like Holbein’s Dead Christ in the Tomb, is presented in a manner that is so matter of fact, so drained of real importance, that the idea of death asserts itself with the chilled subtlety of a business card dropped on a dinner setting. Why him, one might ask, and for that matter, why her? Why ask, would be her likely reply. Taylor-Wood has appropriated widely in the past, from Atlas to Roman orgy scenes (updated to the present day) to Hollywood movies.

Here, as elsewhere in her work, feelings of emotional and physical distress take the place of narrative. In Taylor-Woods’ hands, The Pietà becomes an icon of exhaustion and distress. Or obversely, exhaustion and distress become iconic, if only by association.

It is very important to note that after the filmings of I Want Love and Pietà with Sam Taylor-Wood, Robert Downey Jr. has never again gone to rehab, jail or prison.

Pietà: A World of Exhaustion and Distress (2001)

Sam Taylor-Wood: Crying Men

Prior to being diagnosed with cancer eleven years ago, Sam Taylor-Wood was the darling party girl of Young British Art. By the age of 42, Sam Taylor-Wood had become the British art world’s acceptable face: a mature artist with an A-list address book and, with her husband, Jay Jopling, a place at the new art establishment’s top table. Grown men have wept for her, but how woud they remember her? She could have sat for Modigliani. Her long face, the slim figure, the strong, bony hands echo the left-field sensuality and elongated elegance of his models. There are hints of it in her own self-portraits, especially the strangely balletic Self-Portrait Suspended, which was made after she had filmed and photographed members of Great Britain’s Royal Ballet. This is a forgivable display of narcissism; a creative work that is evoked by a dream of swimming in air can hardly be a legitimate source of public outrage in the art world.

Taylor-Wood’s acclaimed earlier experimental short film, Still Life, in which a bowl of fruit was filmed slowly rotting away, was about mortality and life’s inevitable transience; her later work, Crying Men (2002-2004), was a treatise on the theme of sadness. Her series of photographs in Crying Men attempted to capture the moment between the real and the unreal, the imitation and the authentic. By her use of celebrity actors as models, the viewer debates whether their tears of sadness (and therefore their emotions) are genuine. If the models had been anonymous, the question would never arise. Of course, the question is really a moot one; even if their tears were acting, the pictures can give a viewer the rare opportunity to touch upon the real sources of sadness from which professional actors may draw upon to perform feelings of unhappiness ad sorrow. It is a subtle challenge that is typical of Taylor-Wood’s increasing degree of maturity as a visual artist.

Robert Downey, Jr continued his working relationship with Taylor-Wood in this work, appearing as one of the celebrity actors in her Crying Men series of photographs.

Sam Taylor-Wood: Crying Men (2002-2004)

Chaplin is a 1992 semi-biographical film about the life of Charles Chaplin. It starred Robert Downey Jr., Dan Aykroyd and Geraldine Chaplin. The film was adapted from the books My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin and Chaplin: His Life and Art by David Robinson. It was produced and directed by Richard Attenborough. The original music score was composed by John Barry.

Although the film was criticized for taking dramatic license with some respects of Chaplin’s life, Downey’s uncanny performance as Chaplin won almost universal acclaim. Attenborough was sufficiently confident in Downey’s performance to include historical footage of Chaplin himself at the end of the film. The film’s tagline was “Everyone has a wild side. Even a legend.”

It was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Robert Downey Jr.), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and Best Music, Original Score. Robert Downey Jr. also won the BAFTA Award for Best Actor.

Robert Downey, Jr Sings: Smile (Chaplin, 1992)

Robert Downey’s return from the brink is truly a fighter’s tale. Since getting clean in 2001, the man who was at one time referred to as the best actor of his generation, but also (in Time Magazine) as a “stark reminder of the strangling power of addiction,” has labored hard to show Hollywood that he deserved another chance.

And look at him standing there now, a great big movie star in a huge, blockbuster of a movie, The Iron Man, with not a trace of human frailty. It was only seven years ago that the only time you saw Robert Downey Jr. getting big publicity in our newspapers or on television came when he was being paraded and humiliated in public by the police after one of his many arrests.

Yet when it came time for Marvel Studios to cast the lead for a huge franchise film, Iron Man, it bet on Robert Downey. He is not only back in the game but at the very top of it. Downey’s saga easily can lead one to think: Isn’t this a great country, or what?

Robert Downey, Jr: Iron Man, 2008 (The Official Trailer)

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