I remember the first time I listened to Amy Winehouse’s album “Back to Black.” It transported me to another time and place that had long ceased to exist as her music sounded like something out of the 60’s. I actually found her album at my local library and downloaded it onto my iPod with the hopes of listening to it one day. Once I did get around to listening to it, I couldn’t turn it off as I was too captivated by her amazing vocals and heartfelt lyrics.
It was profoundly sad to see Winehouse’s life get cut short at the age of 27 from alcohol poisoning. In some ways, her death wasn’t a huge surprise as she had endured a lot of substance abuse and paparazzi harassment in the years leading up to her death. She had become a tabloid punchline as it appeared as though she had no desire to hide her debaucheries from the public eye. Many of us rooted for Winehouse to pull herself out of her downward spiral and struggled to understand why she would self-destruct on such a public level, but it only goes to show just how much we know about being famous. One person described her as being an old soul in a young woman’s body, and this became even more the case as time went on.
The documentary “Amy” succeeds in giving us a very intimate look at Winehouse not just as a public figure, but as the person she was before and after she achieved worldwide fame. Many who knew her personally are interviewed here, and it gives us a picture into a life which became irrevocably damaged by fame and substance abuse. But even though we know how her story will end, the documentary brings her back to life for a short time, and it feels like she is still with us.
“Amy’s” first image will forever burn in my memory as we see the singer at her best friend’s 13th birthday party. We see her sing the song Happy Birthday and can’t take our eyes off of her as she does such an amazing job of belting it out. This proved to be the best way to start this documentary as we see right then and there a star has been born. Listening to her makes you wish she would sing at your next birthday party, seriously.
The documentary is full of never before seen home videos and footage which helps to give her more complexity and dimension than the media ever could while she was alive, and this makes seeing “Amy” all the more necessary. The singer has long sing joined the ranks of Janis Joplin and Billie Holiday, famous singers whose lives were cut short at such an early age, and like them, she deserves to be known for more than her vices.
What “Amy” shows is how Winehouse was a woman who got into music as a form of survival. Having been a child of divorce and suffered from depression, music and singing offered her an outlet from all the psychological damage life kept inflicting on her. She never saw herself having a career as a singer, and she admits early on she didn’t set out to become famous because she didn’t think she could handle it. Those words soon prove to be prophetic.
It was great to see all the home footage of Winehouse as it gives us a side of her the public never got to see until now. She appears for a time to be a fun-loving girl eager to spend her days with friends and smoke weed, but like any famous artist she was a tortured soul whose eagerness to sing was more about getting negative energy out of her system than making millions of dollars.
The fact “Amy” is such an intimate documentary isn’t a huge surprise to me as it was directed by Asif Kapadia, the same filmmaker who gave us one of the very best documentaries of the last few years with “Senna.” Just as he did with “Senna,” Kapadia invites us to spend time with a celebrity who we previously saw through the distorted lenses of corporate media.
It also gives you an up close and personal view of how damaging fame can be. One scene has Winehouse going up to the stage to accept an award, and the noise of the audience and fans quickly becomes deafening, illustrating how her life had become a fish bowl which cut her off from everyday reality. It’s not hard to feel for her as the prying and voyeuristic eyes of the media render her private life nonexistent.
Her addictions included alcohol and hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, but perhaps her biggest drug of all was the tempestuous love affair she had with Blake Fielder-Civil. The fact she and Blake didn’t meet the same fate which greeted Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen seems amazing considering how deeply intertwined they were in each other’s lives and vices. Woody Harrelson in “Natural Born Killers” said “love beats the demon,” but for Winehouse, love may have proven to be her biggest demon even as it fueled some of her most unforgettable songs.
“Amy” also calls into question how we deal with celebrities whose lives are spinning out of control. Winehouse became a punchline for comedians as her woes continued endlessly, and what might have seemed funny while she was alive now seems cruel in retrospect. Perhaps we are numbed to the suffering of celebrities as we have many examples of famous peoples’ lives getting cut short from one generation to the next, but it also shows the pleasure many took in her self-degradation. Now you may say she brought this all on herself, but did she really?
It’s horrifying and ultimately heartbreaking to see Winehouse in her last days as such a gaunt and unhealthy looking person. Many have called her a nasty diva but, as Kapadia shows here, she was really trying to escape the constant glare of the media and attention she never set out to get. At the last concert she did before her death, one she did not want to do, she refused to sing a single note even as the crowd mercilessly booed her. From a distance this looks like the antics of a spoiled pop star, but it was an act of defiance on her part as she was struggling to escape the famous persona which had been thrust upon her. Sadly, she found the escape through death.
Now I may be making “Amy” sound like a truly depressing cinematic experience, but while it is heartbreaking, it is also joyful as well. Winehouse was an exceptionally gifted singer, and hearing her voice when it is not being backed up by a band is jaw-dropping to witness. She really did have one hell of a voice. Also, Kapadia pays close attention to the lyrics she wrote and how autobiographical they proved to be. After watching “Amy,” it will be impossible to look at any of her songs the same way again.
There are wonderful moments when Winehouse performs in London for the Grammys after getting clean and sober, and it’s great to see her excitement when Tony Bennett comes onstage. When she ends up winning a Grammy, the theater she’s in bursts into applause and cheers, and it’s exhilarating to see everyone’s reactions as all the hard work paid off in a great way. Of course, this moment is also tinged with sadness as we know this will be the last true moment of happiness in Winehouse’s life.
Granted, “Amy” has been dealing with some controversy as her family has blasted the documentary as being inaccurate. Her father, Mitch, has been especially critical as he feels the filmmakers portrayed him in a very negative light. Mitch, in all fairness, has a right to feel this way, but Kapadia has given us an objective look at him and everyone else featured in a way which doesn’t moralize or demonize anyone. Any faults of Mitch shown onscreen are his to own up to, but at least the movie doesn’t show him as being completely absent throughout his daughter’s life.
For what it’s worth, Mitch comes off a lot better than her daughter’s ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, who openly admits to introducing Winehouse to crack cocaine and heroin. The fact he admits this to Kapadia in an interview is astonishing, and it makes clear he is the one with the higher price to pay for Winehouse’s demise.
I’ve watched a number of documentaries recently which have been very entertaining, but many of them dig only so deep or touch at the surface of their subject’s life. It’s like there’s something missing which makes the whole endeavor seem like a loss opportunity when you look back on it. But “Amy” proves to be one of the very best documentaries in the past few years as it examines its subject objectively and without fear, and it leaves no stone unturned as it uncovers the many aspects of this troubled singer’s personality.
Just as he did with “Senna,” Kapadia has made “Amy” as a way to get to know this famous personality in a way we never had before. It’s like he has brought her back to life for a short time to where it feels like she never left, and it is nice to see her portrayed in such a way more befitting to who she was as an individual instead of how she was as a worldwide famous celebrity.
It was nice to meet you, Ms. Winehouse. Sorry you couldn’t stay with us a little while longer.