Director: Asif Kapadia
MPAA Rating: (for language and drug material)
Running Time: 2:08
Release Date: 7/3/15 (limited); 7/10/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | July 9, 2015
If a family member, loved one, or friend were to express or otherwise display his/her suffering to you, you surely wouldn't run off to gossip about it with strangers. You wouldn't make snide remarks about a loved one's sudden and drastic loss of weight behind his or her back, would you? You wouldn't crack cruel jokes about a friend or even a casual acquaintance's substance addiction, right? If a family member was in an abusive or enabling relationship, the last thing on your mind would be to seek out as much evidence of that relationship and keep it in a scrapbook, correct?
You would want to help these people. That's basic, human empathy.
Somehow, though, when it comes to celebrities, we have the ability to turn off that instinct toward empathy. We'll gossip about this or that famous person's problems. We'll judge this singer or that actress for her personal appearance, especially if she looks "too thin" or "put on some pounds." We'll laugh at somebody's joke about how that celebrity drank to excess and passed out somewhere or got high and caused some kind of scene.
What is it about celebrities that can turn us into unapologetic jerks? Why is it such a common reaction to judge and mock a famous person's troubles? Why is empathy toward our fellow human beings, which is the norm in everyday situations, so easy to dismiss if that fellow human being happens to have his or her face and name plastered across the tabloids? Amy, a devastatingly intimate documentary about the difficult life and tragic death of singer Amy Winehouse, doesn't have the answers, but it certainly will make one think twice before laughing or gossiping or condemning the next time one reads or hears about some celebrity's most recent "exploit."
Asif Kapadia's film opens with home video of a teenage Winehouse singing "Happy Birthday" to a friend. We can hear something special: the vibrato, the range, and the rawness, as if every note is improvised from some subconscious part of her mind that simply knows where to go without thinking about it. She was raised with the masters of jazz song-stylings while everyone else was listening to the Top 40 hits. Growing up, she never really wanted a career in music. She says she was just happy knowing that she could sing if she ever needed to.
The entire film is made up of such footage, in which we can observe firsthand how her skills become more refined as her body wastes away from drugs and alcohol, and it's narrated by family, friends, and professional partners. Almost all of them say the same things: Winehouse, who died of alcohol poisoning in 2011 at the too-young age of 27, was humble and honest and incredibly talented and neither seeking nor cut out for fame.
She knew it would destroy her. She says as much multiple times over the course of the film, usually as a joke during an interview, as her career starts to rise. Winehouse imagined herself singing in little jazz clubs throughout her native England and, more importantly, was convinced she would be happy with that life.
Two things happen to stop that dream: She meets/falls hard for a guy and becomes famous. The guy is Blake Fielder, a rock club owner, who would later become Winehouse's husband. According to friends, she started using cocaine and heroin because he did. She would have done anything for him. She says so in a voice mail to him after one of their fallings out, and she sings about it in a couple of songs. Winehouse's lyrics, which are presented as titles during the many live and studio-based performances in the film, aren't difficult to decipher. She lays it all out for the world to hear.
The song that made her a star is "Rehab," another highly personal ditty about a real-life incident in which her manager Nicky Shymansky, along with her friends Juliette and Lauren, attempted to get her help for her struggles with alcoholism and bulimia. Her father Mitch intervened before anything could be done, saying she was "fine."
Fielder, Winehouse's father, and her replacement manager Raye Cosbert, who had the mentality of a promoter, all get their say in various interviews. It's more generous than objective on Kapadia's part. Everything these three say contradicts what we hear from everyone else and see for ourselves. Winehouse was not "fine" by any standard. If we take her father's reality TV stint and Fielder's tendency to show up at opportune times while leaving when things get tough, we can pretty much figure out why they did what they did.
The film's structure is entirely chronological. We learn what fueled her music—her parents' separation at a young age, the emotional toll of that, and, most telling, a battle with depression that lasted for at least half of her life. We don't come to see Winehouse as the tragic player in a clichéd story about a rise to/fall from fame. We see her in in a far more personal way—sleeping in the back of a car on the way to perform at the first stop on the tour for the release of her debut album, using a silly accent to give her friend a tour of her hotel room, gasping with wide eyes as Tony Bennett comes on stage to announce that she has won an award. After that last moment, one of Winehouse's friends says that the singer took her aside to bemoan, "It's all so boring without drugs."
That became Winehouse's story in the media, from the tabloids, which sickeningly wanted every last detail documented with pictures, to the more mainstream outlets, which took easy shots at her. One such incident is striking. While on a world tour that she didn't want to participate in, Winehouse comes out on stage and doesn't perform. The audience and media assume it's because she was drunk or stoned and had forgotten what she was doing.
We see a different side, though—a close-up of her sitting on stage with a devilish smirk on her face. In context, it appears to be a conscious protest against everyone who forced her into this situation. In a way, Amy gives Winehouse a final act of defiance—to force us to see her for who she was, instead of what everyone wanted her to be.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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