I wasn't a fan of Amy Winehouse during her lifetime. Not because I disliked her music--I rarely heard her music in the radio wasteland where I live. She just wasn't on my radar beyond what was printed in the tabloids, and even then my familiarity consisted only of headlines glimpsed in supermarket lines. This says more about how music is marketed these days than it does about her music by itself. One of the legacies of Amy (2015, directed by Asif Kapadia), the new documentary about her life, is to establish the magnitude of Winehouse's talent, which was immense. That's a fitting enough epitaph for an artist whose creative life was tragically short. But appreciation of Amy Winehouse isn't the ultimate effect of the film. One walks away from the film feeling a mixture of sadness and rage. It's an indictment of the fame monster (to borrow a phrase from another pop diva), of the machineries of stardom, of our culture's insatiable obsession with celebrity. In documenting the life of Amy Winehouse, this film is holding up an accusing mirror to the culture that destroyed her.
Amy is constructed of home movie footage and archival material culled from Winehouse's concerts and other public appearances, arranged more or less chronologically beginning when Winehouse was a teen and ending with the footage of her body being carried to an ambulance. As is sometimes the case with documentaries constructed from sub optimal sources, this film has a weird, hallucinatory quality that mimics Amy's history of drug use. It's occasionally disorienting. Winehouse as a teen was very different from the public creation of the tabloid press: a working class Jewish girl with a thick cockney accent and a broad smile and a voice out of history. Winehouse sounded like a gin-soaked combination of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone even when she was young. She plugged that voice into a jazz idiom that was influenced in equal parts by Sinatra and hip-hop. In many ways, she was an anachronism, but the film makes a case for Winehouse as sui generis. There was nothing in pop music like her when she appeared. Not in hip hop, not in jazz, not in pop. She was signed to make records when she was a teenager, and began a rigorous schedule of concert appearances that would ultimately wear her down over the ensuing half decade of her life. She was instantly successful. Meanwhile, she progressed from alcohol to hard drugs under the influence of the people who were attracted to her. The man she married introduced her to crack cocaine. No one in her orbit intervened when it became clear that she had a problem. Mustn't upset the gravy train. Winehouse was a bulimic, too, a condition that combined with her substance abuse to kill her before her time. Meanwhile, the paparazzi smelled blood in the water. Winehouse and her problems were the stuff of tabloid dreams, and there was nowhere she could run to escape the lightning storm of flashbulbs. She was hounded into an early grave.
Amy is a surprisingly intimate film. Winehouse was keen on documenting her own life, and much of the footage in this film is her version of the selfie. If she had lived into our current Twitter age, she might have documented herself in a way that would make this film redundant. In this footage, she's approachable as a person, as someone likeable even beyond her fame and her talent. The contrast with the public persona developed during and after the release of her second album, Back to Black, is striking. That persona, with the big black wig and the signature lip piercing is the one the tabloids devoured. That these two personae are recognizably the same wounded person is one of the documentary's best insights. It communicates this by focusing, when it can, on the music and on the process behind it. We're privy to the notes Winehouse made as a songwriter, and the movie matches this with the events in her life that inform the music. The music, it should go without saying, is terrific even when it's outlining the ways that Winehouse's life is unraveling. "Rehab," her biggest single, is a repudiation of the people who would try to control her, but it's also a talisman of the fact that no one had the courage to intervene to save her life. It's possible that she couldn't have been saved; the movie isn't so naive as to suggest that should could have been rescued without her own will. She was coerced into sobriety on the occasion of her Grammy nomination for Back to Black. The record company threatened that she would never record again if she failed a piss test in the run up to the award. Upon winning, one of her best friends tells us in voice-over, Amy said, "Do you have any idea of how much this sucks without drugs?" It's a haunting reminiscence.
If this all sounds dour and tragic, well, it is, but the film isn't all tragedy. There are triumphs, too. Most of those depict Amy on stage at the height of her powers as a performer and those scenes are electrifying. The hint of redemption near the end in footage of her last recording session in duet with Tony Bennett is suggestive of a woman who might have been saved after all. Bennett's assessment of her talent is doubly bittersweet for having watched the two of them work together.
There are three major villains in Amy, besides fame itself. The most obvious is her douchebag of a husband, Blake Fielder, who consumption of drugs was gasoline on a fire for Winehouse. The film is also unsympathetic to Mitch Winehouse, Amy's father. When, late in the movie, Amy flees to St. Lucia to escape the limelight, her father comes to visit trailing a reality show camera crew. He's complicit in the hounding of his daughter and by the time this sequence arrives, the film has already inculcated a justified rage at the people around her, and Winehouse himself is never going to get people on his side after this depiction. It's indelible and damning. The most pernicious villain in the film is the media, with packs of paparazzi following Amy everywhere she went. No one can live like that. There are other people who might have intervened--her artistic collaborators, perhaps--but they weren't close to her like Fielder and her father.
While I thought the subtitling of Winehouse's songs in a cutesy multicolored selection of typefaces was annoying, if the film has a critical failing, it's one of scope. It established Amy Winehouse as a mammoth talent, but doesn't suggest the influence her success had. Lady Gaga, Adele, Florence and the Machine, Duffy, and a host of other women have appeared in her wake, filling a void left by her absence. But maybe that's all beside the point. The title of the film is the giveaway. This is ultimately an intimate film, content with the scope of its ambitions and concerned with Amy herself as a wounded and creative person. Within that scope, it's heartbreaking.
What a waste.
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