11 07 2015

AmySince our shallow society can scarcely handle complexity, a rather traditional narrative gets slapped onto the life and death of Amy Winehouse. Unfortunately, her membership to the “27 Club” alongside Joplin, Hendrix, and Morrison lent itself to vast overgeneralization.  People tend to cast her as a talented but troubled artist haunted by personal demons, substance addictions, and public pressure.

Asif Kapadia’s documentary “Amy,” pieced together solely from personal videos and archival performance footage of the singer/songwriter, steals the story back for two hours to correct mistaken notions and fill in a few holes of knowledge.  In many ways, public perception of Winehouse’s downward-spiraling trajectory was spot-on.  But thanks to Kapadia, the familiarity of her struggle does not make her journey conventional.  It makes the tale even more tragic.

Be it a jazzy rendition of “Happy Birthday” at 14, a record label sitting room in her late teens, or packed outdoor arenas in the UK by her early twenties, Amy Winehouse knew how to captivate any audience with her singing voice and fiery personality.  She began writing songs because there was, as she put it, “nothing new that represented me.”  Winehouse’s words and melodies come from a place of authenticity, informed by the real pain of traumatic childhood events like a divorce and a diagnosis of depression.

For many years, people like me were content to consume Amy Winehouse’s albums while merely considering her as a figure, not a person.  To produce music that resonates on such a personal level by confronting inner darkness, she had to face her fair share of issues.  Throughout “Amy,” the songs weave naturally into the storyline, a brilliant editorial choice since the words flowed so directly from her life.  Kapadia usually opts to superimpose the words over Winehouse singing live, allowing an appreciation of her talents as both a lyricist and a performer.

Amy Winehouse

Kapadia does his due diligence in documenting the travails of an ailing addict. Winehouse clearly possessed a compulsive personality long before the media spotlight fixated firmly on her, struggling with afflictions like bulimia and alcohol abuse from her mid-teens.  That same impulse drew her into a destructive relationship with a sleazy club promoter Blake Fielder-Civil.  He turned her on to some of the harder drugs, like crack cocaine and heroin, which required years of work to kick.  (Most people assume she died from an overdose of narcotics, but Winehouse’s end came from alcohol poisoning in her fragile, vulnerable frame.)

But “Amy” does not just blame the victim for self-destructing, instead spreading responsibility for not preventing a predictable ending.  No one – and I mean no one – gets off the hook for Kapadia in the documentary.

Everyone looks like they could have done more to see the writing on the wall, although such is easy to say with the benefit of hindsight.  Especially around the release of “Back to Black,” whose meteoric success shot Amy Winehouse to instant superstardom, certain people stood to benefit personally from her fame.  This includes her second manager Raye Cosbert, who had a vested interest to keep her on the road since he also served as her promoter.  Controversially, Kapadia also indicts her father Mitch, who took a video crew to record the interactions with his daughter when she was in a particularly vulnerable state.

Perhaps most scathingly, though, “Amy” obliterates the abrasive, invasive tabloid paparazzi who were happy to peddle Winehouse’s pain for their own profits.  In a film that does not shy away from the harrowing truths of addiction, it really says something that the most nightmarish sight is the flashing bulbs of the omnipresent photographers who tailed Winehouse closer than her own shadow.  Had these sensationalists really been looking at the human on the other end of their lens, they might have noticed a sight that would truly capture attention: a vulnerable child terrified of the notoriety that unwittingly dovetailed her tremendous talent.

But these exploitative images would not exist without a captive audience, which far too many people were happy to provide.  When Kapadia cross-cuts Winehouse trying to hide from the chroniclers of her misery with jokes from late-night hosts (who were likewise happy to let her perform on their stage), the feeling that results is nothing short of devastating.  Those who failed to speak up on her behalf have some culpability in her demise.

To feel complicit in the death of an icon by celebrating the torment in her lyrics while turning a blind eye to the torture of her life is not particularly easy or fun.  Knowing that songs were her form of therapy, the world collectively served as a shrink that offered no constructive steps for repair.  If we want the next troubled talent to live past 27, we all must learn from the lessons of Amy Winehouse.  Anyone who sees “Amy” ought to leave more cognizant of the desperate cries for help from public figures, which may not always register obviously.

At the very least, Kapadia implores everyone who leaves the film to respond with sympathy and understanding to the plight of others rather than ridiculing them with a mocking sneer.  This may seem like a rather simple task, yet it is so necessary.

Do it for music.  For Amy.  For humanity.  A- / 3halfstars



3 responses

12 07 2015
David H. Schleicher

Excellent and thoughtful insights.

13 07 2015
The Vern

I like reading that we are as much to blame for Amy’s downfall as she is. Im more exicted to see this movie after reading this review

13 07 2015

Glad I could amp up the anticipation – I look forward to reading what you have to say about it!

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