Stoic movie review: Amy

AmyStoicism was meant from the beginning as a living philosophy, something to practice throughout your life, not just discuss from the armchair. Accordingly, I have recently started to apply a Stoic perspective on a number of things I do or experience. One of these is watching movies and documentaries. What follows, then, is an attempt at a “Stoic” review of the 2015 documentary “Amy,” centered on the tragic figure of British singer Amy Winehouse, who died in 2011 at the age of only 27.The documentary — directed by Asif Kapadia — is, in my opinion, well done, though it includes a lot of low quality footage of Winehouse’s childhood and, at 2 hours and 8 minutes, is arguably unnecessarily long.

It is a Greek style tragedy of sorts: Amy’s beautiful voice and physical attractiveness are her tickets out of a mediocre existence in North London, but a combination of early childhood scars (especially her father leaving the family for another woman when she was 9) and deeply flawed supporting characters (again, her exploitative father, as well as her troubled and selfish boyfriend-then-husband) quickly led her to spiral out of control into drug and alcohol addiction, and, predictably, to an early death.

Of course, from a Stoic perspective death — even a “precocious” one — is an “indifferent,” but that means that it is irrelevant to one’s moral character and virtue, not that it is not “dispreferred,” as the Stoics would put it.

“Under no circumstances ever say ‘I have lost something,’ only ‘I returned it.'” (Epictetus, Enchiridion, 11)

Indeed, Amy’s death can be understood as an extreme example of why some “externals” are preferred or dispreferred: it is tragic in part because it cut short a life of excellence (as a musical performer), which could have been beneficial to others not only in terms of direct enjoyment of Amy’s music, but because of the inspiration she might have provided to other young girls, as well as the good she might have been able to do as a result of her wealth (all indications are that Amy was a kind and generous, if deeply troubled, human being).

In a sense, Amy’s life is a textbook illustration of the Stoic idea that externals such as fame and money are not, in themselves, conducive to eudaimonia. There are plenty of examples of people who do enjoy a considerable share of such externals, and yet are not happy (like Amy), as well as others who do not have them, and yet are happy.

Nonetheless, Amy’s life seems to provide support to the peripatetic (i.e., Aristotelian) notion that virtue by itself is necessary but not sufficient for a good life: one also needs certain other conditions, which for Aristotle include a degree of wealth, health, nurturing environment (family and society), and even good looks. From an Aristotelian perspective, then, Amy did not achieve eudaimonia because of a character flaw that was likely the result of a bad family environment, as instantiated by her father first, and both her father and her husband later.

(To give you a flavor of what I’m talking about, in the documentary we hear her father at one point saying that Amy can go on a tour because she doesn’t need rehabilitation therapy — which she clearly did; and her husband, who enabled her addictions and was an addict himself, later insisted in going into rehab together, something that one of the doctors interviewed clearly said was both a very bad idea and unethical to boot.)

The Stoic point of view is, in a sense, harsher and more demanding than the peripatetic one: once reached the age of reason (about 14 years old), and certainly beyond that, Amy was a rational being, capable of making her own decisions, regardless of circumstances (prior or contemporary). This doesn’t mean that her death was her fault, but simply that she was not equipped — character-wise — to properly deal with her realities: she “assented” to “impressions” (such as the conviction that she could get relief by imbibing huge quantities of alcohol, or by injecting drugs into her veins) in an irrational manner, and paid the price for it. It is hard not to wonder whether Amy Winehouse would not have benefited from the Stoic-inspired cognitive behavioral therapy.

Perhaps counterintuitively, Stoicism may go easier than one would expect on the above mentioned villains of the story: Amy’s father and husband. They are clearly deeply flawed human beings, and it is hard to have any sympathy for them throughout the documentary. Then again, the Stoics insisted that nobody does evil on purpose, only out of ignorance (a clearly Socratic concept), and that we should be tolerant of other people’s faults, reminding ourselves that we cannot fully know why they do what they do.

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, II.1)

What we can say, however, is that a number of characters in the documentary were definitely lacking in virtue, far more so than Amy herself. This certainly includes the paparazzi who just couldn’t get enough of shooting pictures of a distraught and troubled Amy, in order to sell them to the highest bidders among tabloids and other media.

I thought that Jay Leno, the comedian and late night host, came across pretty badly, even though I’m sure he thought he was simply doing his job. Early on in the documentary he is seen hosting Amy on his show, displaying his usual charm and praising her abilities. But once things go bad for Amy, he vilifies her in front of his audience, indulging in jokes of questionable taste concerning her drug addiction. So much for comedy “punching up” rather than down (i.e., being aimed at the mighty and powerful, not the troubled or downtrodden).

By contrast, one of the most sympathetic figures in the documentary is the singer Tony Bennett. At some point he invites Amy to record a duet with him, a recognition of just how good she is, being called by one of the people she repeatedly refers to as her idol (the Stoics would say role model). Bennett is seen comforting and encouraging Amy during the taping session, and after she dies he makes a sad but wise remark: she had not yet learned how to live, something that life itself teaches you, if you manage to live long enough.

Finally, one has to consider the filmmakers themselves, as well as us as members of the audience who actually goes to see this sort of documentary. At a dinner I had afterwards with friends the question was raised whether both shooting and watching “Amy” isn’t really indulging in a version of what we found so despicable in the paparazzi and the related media circus: aren’t we guilty of the decidedly unvirtous attitude of exploiting (the filmmakers) or relishing (the viewers) a human tragedy for purposes respectively of financial gain and pleasure?

Maybe, but a more benign interpretation can be offered, from a virtue ethical perspective: “Amy” and similar documentaries can be presented (by the filmmakers) and understood (by the audience) as instructive tales about human life, just in the way in which the ancients attended theatrical representations of both fictional and biographical stories used as either positive models or cautionary tales from which to learn lessons to be applied to their own lives. Bennett is surely right that one way to learn how to live is to live long enough; but a complementary way is to indirectly learn from the lives of others, incorporating into our existence the lessons that the universe taught to them.

12 thoughts on “Stoic movie review: Amy

  1. I like your review, Massimo, but do you, at your point in life, really need the lesson this movie purportedly provides? Or is seeing the movie for you perhaps better justified because of the meta-ethical practice of using Stoic values to critique contemporary culture? Perhaps the answer lies in the real source of the pleasure you derived from the film.


  2. Yes a tragedy. I have known and read about other young people who have died of similar causes. I always have the unstoic thought ‘If only I was there, I could have done something’.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Jeff, no, I don’t think I needed to learn that particular lesson at this point in my life. But perhaps I needed a reminder of what can happen to other people and how.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Stoic movie reviews–this is a new thing, Massimo! You might be the very first one in history to do this. I have a few questions related to your movie review (I haven’t seen the film, so these are based solely on your review)… You state that we must be tolerant of the hurtful actions of others by “reminding ourselves that we cannot fully know why they do what they do,” in regard to the characters around Amy. However, with Amy, the story becomes: “Amy was a rational being, capable of making her own decisions, regardless of circumstances.” First of all: How much are we able to hold someone accountable for their actions (Amy), when we can’t hold the people around them (father, husband) also equally accountable? Why do they get the pass on not being held in line with their own characters? In the same judgment of Amy as a rational being–can’t we also make that assumption for the father, the husband, the paparazzi, etc. and decide that they were “definitely lacking in virtue” but also responsible in some way for Amy’s demise? Secondly: How sure are you that a drug/alcohol-addicted person can be capable of making any rational choices at all? Someone who is chemically dependent and physically addicted certainly is not able to make “rational” decisions about her own life. Now if you were arguing that her first drink/drug experience was her own decision… that might be true. Although even then we have to ask how predisposed her brain was, biologically, to chemical substances–and how rational was her choice to try a substance the first time (was she coerced by friends, was she introduced under stress, was she very young the first time, etc.). Which leads me to an interesting point: how free are we, really? Aren’t we almost completely under the control of the circumstances of our birth, bodies, social environments, and luck? And if so, don’t we all get a pass on the goodness of our “character” in the end? And in that case, is anyone ever “responsible”? (these are rhetorical questions, obviously I don’t expect an answer… just my continuing reactions to your blog) Also, can we make requests for your reviews? For instance, I would love to hear your Stoic review of “Ex Machina.”


  5. Vienna,

    All excellent questions! I don’t have a lot of time at the moment (I’m at a conference in Vegas), but briefly. First off, I didn’t mean to say that Amy’s father and boyfriend get a pass, especially after having raised the point that she was responsible for her own actions. What I meant was that it doesn’t help to think of those actions as evil, as opposed to being the result of ignorance and lack of wisdom. They are still responsible.

    Concerning the issue of addicts, again, excellent point. It’s not my field, but I’ve seen a number of articles at Stoicism Today about how a Stoic approach in general, and CBT more locally, can be helpful to people with a range of mental disorders, including addiction. But yes, there certainly are limits to what we really are in charge of. Nonetheless, it was interesting that, according to the documentary, Amy managed to get completely clean a number of times, but then fell back into the old patterns. Those moments of mental cleanliness would seem to be the best chances to get back in control of one’s life.

    In free will more broadly, the Stoic position is a compatibilist, which I endorse. But it’s a long discussion.

    I did see Ex Machina, and found it interesting, of course. I’m not sure I want to get into the business of writing “Stoic” movie reviews regularly, but “Amy” inspired me, and it was an interesting exercise.


  6. Thanks Massimo. You wrote in past posts about updating the modern Stoic ideas to include scientific evidence about our world. Addiction to chemical substances may be one area where a modern Stoic would revise her understanding of what is “in our control” or not, based on scientific advances. For instance, cocaine is a psychomotor stimulant inhibiting the reuptake of dopamine (thus elevating these levels in the brain). In that case, addicted individuals may have been unawarely self-medicating by using the substance. Neuroscience indicates this may be the issue for very many addictions, including socially encouraged ones (like caffeine, for instance).

    As you have written, someone who has sobered up from an addiction may then relapse, or she may use the opportunity of being sober to develop her virtue of self-discipline to gain power over the pull of the addictive substance. However for some biologically predisposed brains, the element of control (rational ability to choose) not to use the substance, once the chemical has been introduced as a compensatory response, prevents the option to merely develop self-discipline against relapse. Would these people been seen as having “lacking virtue” by the modern Stoic? There are many indications that addiction is “out of our control” and not a character flaw or failure to be virtuous (lack of self-discipline) and that in such a case, modern Stoicism would want to adapt to the scientific evidence of neuroscience.

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  7. Vienna,

    These are all very good question. Stoicism, just like any other philosophy, presupposes that one has a normal capacity of making independent decisions, and modern neuroscience tells us that this is sometimes hampered by a number of neurological conditions.

    Still, there is a growing literature of how Stoicism (and CBT) can be helpful to people with mental disorders, including addicts. At any rate, this isn’t really a question of blame: the Stoics were clear that even people who do bad things to others (let alone to themselves) should be treated with compassion, not by assigning blame.


  8. Ok, sorry if I am wrongly interpreting the phrase “assent” to the “impressions” of addictive behaviors to mean that there is a matter of control, therefore choice, therefore responsibility, for her actions. In which case most people would blame her for making a choice (“assenting”) that is not healthy/in her best interest/virtuous. I was only trying to clarify that addiction might have been out of her control, in which her “assent” might be questionable in that situation. I am peripherally aware of CBT (my parents use this method in their practices), but I do know that AA and other addiction groups advocate complete abstinence from an addictive substance. In the case that someone could really abstain, they might be able to begin rationally evaluating their actions and increase their self discipline. Thanks for your posts.


  9. Vienna,

    Perhaps a more productive way of looking at it is that our capacity of giving rational assent to impressions (to use Stoic terminology) varies among people and with circumstances. Some addicts to successfully overcome their addiction, and it is possible that Stoic practice can help, like CBT seems to.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I read recently that a new meta-studie indicates CBT seems to be losing it’s effectiveness with time.

    “‘Researchers have found that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is roughly half as effective in treating depression as it used to be’ writes Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian, arguing that this is why CBT is ‘falling out of favour’. It’s worth saying that CBT seems as popular as ever, but even if it was in decline, it probably wouldn’t be due to diminishing effectiveness – because this sort of reduction in effect is common across a range of treatments.”
    Here is a link if interested.


  11. The occasional Stoic slant on film crit. sounds good to me. Phil Plait goes into detail on the science in movies because movies are a popular art form and it’s a good way to get into a lot of those topics. Same goes for Mythbusters, I guess, in a different way.

    I’ve found myself thinking about Stoicism a bit when watching movies lately with my daughter. I showed her Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and was surprised at how Stoic Charlie Sheen’s character is (except for the whole druggie thing, of course). His whole “Your problem isn’t your brother, it’s you” speech he gives to Ferris’ grumpy sister is totally Stoic! In Big Hero 6, I found it to to be almost a perfect lesson on the dangers on not taking the death of family members Stoically.

    On William Irvine’s blog he mentions at some point that he considers Groundhog Day to be in his top five Stoic films but never says what the other four are! That would be an interesting list anyway.


  12. Seth, yes, I’ve seen that article. Hard to know what to make of it, in terms of causality. I’ll keep monitoring that sort of literature, though.

    Jim, we should definitely ask Irvine! I’ll see if I have time to write a few occasional movie reviews along these lines.


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