"The more people see of me, the more they'll realize that all I'm good for is making music."
When Amy Winehouse died from a lethal combination of alcohol poisoning and complications due to bulimia in the late summer of 2011, I was one of the first to jump on the "kick her while she's down" bandwagon. I recognized the inherent tragedy in the situation, but she had been such a punching bag in the media that I assumed she must have been a casualty of her own success. The media has a way of turning everything into a circus, and the one they concocted around Amy was one of the most outrageous spectacles we've seen in modern times. Thankfully the new documentary Amy sets out to right a lot of misconceptions about the chanteuse, and the way that director Asif Kapadia (Senna) lets words and images speak for themselves gives the brutality of her life all the more guttural an impact.
Kapadia's use of a variety of media, including home video footage of the singer's early life, to tell the story enhances its tragedy and makes it more familial and much more impactful. The audience is taken on a journey alongside Amy as she goes from the teenager in the neighborhood with the amazing voice, to the struggling artist just looking to catch a break, and then inevitably and tragically toward her meteoric rise and the fall that followed almost immediately. By doing this, Kapadia invites the audience to get to know Amy in a completely different way than most of us got to know her when she first broke through. This gives even the biggest fans of her music then chance to get to see her the way her friends saw her, as this shy girl who thought that the world was a place where once people got to know her, they would just leave her alone. Sadly, that's not the way our culture works, and that knowledge makes this early footage of Amy all the more heartbreaking.
Amy uses two narrative devices to its benefit, the first being that none of the interview subjects are seen on screen while they're talking about Amy, almost giving the film a feeling of these people existing in a time capsule along with the footage. I had initially thought this would be something of a distraction, but thankfully Kapadia has more than enough footage to sustain the film's running time and then some. It's also interesting to watch the footage of Amy morph from the haphazardly shot home video footage to the much more professional looking television news footage. As poor Amy gets worse, the spotlight on her begins to shine brighter and brighter.
The other narrative device that works extremely well is that all of Amy's lyrics are printed on screen as she sings them, giving audiences a very concrete way to see how talented she was not just as a vocalist, but also as a writer. Hearing her sing the line,
"I ain't got the time and if my daddy thinks I'm fine
He's tried to make me go to rehab but I won't go, go, go"
is one thing, but seeing those words, surrounded by the context of her life, makes them a chilling reminder of how even your own parents can turn on you when you begin making money. Sadly, this is exactly what Amy was dealing with, and the controversy surrounding her parents' opinion of the finished product is understandable in light of how they're portrayed. For the record, they're portrayed quite fairly and let their words and actions speak for themselves. If her father Mitch comes off as the film's antagonist, it's only because his actions consign him to such a role, and hearing her mother Janis talk about Amy's bulimia as something she thought would just go away if she ignored it does effectively the same for Janis.
The film's other villain is Amy's ex-husband Blake Fielder, who exploited Amy's devotion to him to no end. The sections of the film detailing their tumultuous relationship are some of the most difficult to watch, if only because it's clear that Amy's infatuation was not necessarily reciprocal, particularly toward the end of the relationship. Seeing Amy continue the destructive behavior the two shared after he's carted off to jail is heartbreaking, but she somehow manages to get herself together enough to carry on. The events that follow, particularly the wrongs perpetrated on Amy by her father, become all the more heartbreaking when you know that there's only one way this story can end.
The film is not short on effusive praise for Amy's talent as a singer and songwriter, yet it's all tinged with a sadness and regret from her closest friends and from music luminaries such as Tony Bennett and Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) who were fortunate enough to work and record with her. Amy's memory is still very vivid in their minds, and the portrait they paint of a lonely and lost woman who relied too heavily on the kindness of strangers is heartbreaking. The one thing that Amy is not short on is tragedy, and the film's two hour running time is mostly devoted to this theme, making it a difficult watch, but a rewarding one nonetheless. It's a cautionary tale for anyone who harbors a desire for fame or recognition, and a sobering reminder that there is literally no way to prepare anyone for the maelstrom that comes along with fame.
Amy is a devastating film, and one that will resonate with the viewer for days or even weeks, as I saw the film three weeks ago and it's still vivid in my mind. Amy left behind precious little music on her tragic journey toward joining the notorious "27 Club," but the fact that it's every bit as powerful as it was the day she recorded it is a testament to the power of a truly great and gifted musician. Amy the film makes Amy the person all the more three-dimensional and tangible, and it helps to solidify not just her place in history, but also her legacy as a figure of immense talent. This is a film that's impossible to shake, and though her music will never die, her memory shines brighter through the sharing of her story. I'm glad I got to witness it, and I'm also very, very sad that I sought to judge her before I ever sought to understand her. Don't be surprised if you walk out of the theater feeling likewise.
GO Rating: 4/5
[Photos via Rotten Tomatoes]