Nutshell: this documentary will rip you into little pieces as you watch Winehouse go from a talented snarky kid to a messed up superstar too many people took advantage of rather than tried to help. Director Asif Kapadia points no fingers, but simply lets people hang or save themselves by their own words. Powerful, thought provoking, and a fitting hat-tip to a life snuffed out all too soon. Grade: A
I have to admit that I was one of those folks that only found out about Amy Winehouse when she was already a cautionary tale. Back to Black came out when I was in the middle of my own Private Idaho, so I wasn’t really paying attention to new music even when “Rehab” hit, and hit big. But later it was impossible to miss all the news pieces on every little thing she did to herself. Missed shows, careless parents, drunken binges, drugs, a caustic relationship with a caustic man…all the greatest hits of any doomed soul. Winehouse seemed to edge closer and closer to the darkness she sang about, til she finally toppled in. I gave her final album a listen, and was blown away. And my heart hurt for a woman who was so obviously in pain. But what did I know? Nothing, that’s what.
I got an in-depth look at Winehouse’s life in Amy, a documentary that uses her personal videos, lyrics, and remembrances from friends and family, to paint a picture of a shy but saucy young girl who was caught up in the star-making machinery and paid the ultimate price. Starting as a girl with a penchant for poetry, she turns those poems into lyrics like a modern day Jim Morrison. Like Morrison, Winehouse had an addictive personality that was kicked into high gear from the combination of rapid success, easy money, a self-serving boyfriend/husband, and parents who enjoyed her success too much to stop and look at what was happening to her.
A “very old soul in a very young body”, Winehouse’s rise is a lovely fairytale. She looks so happy and completely present in the moment. This would have had me excited for the new star, had I seen this at the time. But in retrospect, it’s painful to see her happy when I knew what was waiting for her around the bend. That bend came in 2005, when Amy moved to Camden. In her own digs, “things started changing”. Then Amy met the Sid Vicious to her Nancy Spungen in Blake Fielder, a member of a band in a club she frequented. Blake became everything to her, and she confessed she’d do anything to “feel what he feels”, from cutting herself to trying heroin. When Blake dumps Amy to return to his former girlfriend, Amy is despondent. Black to Black covers that breakup, and the beginnings of her decent into drugs and alcohol.
But where were friends and family? Her friends were by her side until Amy became so self-destructive they couldn’t bear to watch anymore. Her mother Janis said “I wasn’t strong enough to tell her to stop”, and her father Mitch seemed to bask in the attention his daughter was getting. Amy cut out the manager/friend she’d had for years and hired a club promoter to take over those duties; many wonder if the new manager’s promoter side neglected to take into account the health and well-being of his talent.
Meanwhile, artists and producers like Salaam Remi, Mark Ronson and Mos Def (Yasiin Bey) tried to help her, and stood by her side even as things crumbled. There’s a touching scene where Amy — in London — watches as she wins Record of the Year at the Grammys, and stands awestruck at the vision of Tony Bennett and Natalie Cole. Who can’t connect with a woman gobsmacked over seeing her idols? But the sweetness is short lived; after the ceremony, Amy bemoans that it was “boring without the drugs”. Blake said “we liked to sabotage ourselves”, and that seems spot on. Amy, with her history of bulimia, and drug and alcohol abuse, is a sad poster child for doing all the wrong things.
As this documentary goes on, it’s not her I blame for things getting as out of control as they did. Yes, she poisoned herself. No, nobody forced her to do the things she did to herself. However, where was the help? Where were the people telling her to stop it, halting her performances, making her take a break? If they were there, they were drowned out by the crowds of people around her clamoring for second-hand fame and a part of her fortune. In a scene immediately after Amy and Blake’s wedding, they’re both at a pub celebrating. Amy looks tired and disinterested, while Blake is living it up, calling for more champagne and saying that Amy will pay for it. I couldn’t help but wonder if Blake came back into Amy’s life simply because he saw a gravy train and decided to ride it.
Janis and Mitch Winehouse consider the Amy to be “downright inaccurate”, which I don’t doubt, as they prove themselves to be disinterested at best, and money-hungry fame whores at worst. Janis and Mitch seemed too wrapped up in their own worlds to see how fame — and the onslaught of paparazzi — was affecting their daughter. In one scene, Amy flees to the islands to regroup…only to have father Mitch come down with a camera crew who are filming a reality TV show about Mitch. When Amy, uncomprehending and hurt, confronts him, Mitch becomes defensive. That’s simply one of many instances where Amy’s family put their own wants before her needs. And it made me sick to watch that kind of utter disregard for someone who was patently in distress. Director Kapadia points no fingers though; he simply lets the footage unspool and lets the pieces fall where they may. And those pieces are damning. To paraphrase another writer, it’s not like her family killed her, but they did absolutely nothing to save her.
Amy is a film that echoes Winehouse’s music; it grabs you, shakes you up, and breaks your heart. It’s a film that made me want to reach through the screen, pull her out, and hide her away from all the pain. Pity nobody around her did that when she was still here.