Reviewed by Moira Jean Sullivan
Amy (2015). United States, 128 minutes. Directed by Asif Kapadia. Starring Amy Winehouse, Mitch Winehouse, and Mark Ronson.
Amy debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May and is an extraordinary exposé of the life of the late Amy Winehouse. Winehouse’s short life cycle in the public eye was accompanied by constant updates of her substance addiction. In fact, her musicianship took second place to the sensationalism of mediated culture, especially to those coming late to the table as new converts of her music. However, this documentary reminds us of how her career was built on the joy and enchantment of her artistry. It showcases previously unseen footage of this phenomenal artist, including early live performances. British filmmaker Asif Aspadia’s Amy was nominated for a Golden Eye Award for best documentary, as well as a Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival. Amy is considered Britain’s best documentary this year and is slowly becoming a favorite wherever her music made the charts.
Aspadia’s documentary is constructed as a music video log of Amy’s career. The fresh and bold Amy Winehouse was adored by early fans, but as she became successful within the industry model, she was used as a wind-up doll for the recording industry. She did not willingly participate in their rituals, as evidenced so many times in this documentary. The documentary is not didactic in bringing this message home. The images speak for themselves, and there are no talking heads connecting the dots.
The early historic footage reveals that she was an extremely talented jazz vocalist with clips of her performing in jam sessions. We learn that she felt best when playing in intimate jazz clubs with good musicians. She wrote poetry that became her lyrics and became one of the best singer/songwriter jazz vocalists of this century. Her exquisite voice, vocal range, and phrasing hit notes with spot on accuracy wrapped with emotionally wrenching language, and framing familiar episodes in life with an exactitude inspiring international introspection.
Winehouse’s early fans proclaimed their infatuation with that voice and those incredible lyrics. Grassroots word of mouth is how an artist is born and that is indeed how Winehouse got her career started. Astonishingly, those very fans booed her off the stage at the end of her career for failing to sing and demanded their money back. It was payback time for the public who felt they had made her. Her refusal to perform at one of her last public appearances in Belgrade can only be seen as an act of defiance and strength, She stands with her arms in cross and loosely converses with the musicians. Amy updates the media picture of this outstanding vocalist and in these instances shows how she stood her ground and said no to a large concert she could no longer tolerate as a serious artist.
Shown in the documentary is a beautiful and touching collaboration of Winehouse and Tony Bennett. Here Winehouse accompanies the seasoned Bennett in song. Later on Tony Bennett said that Amy Winehouse was one of the great jazz musicians of our time and equal to vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald.
Given substantial room is Amy Winehouse’s two-year relationship with her husband Blake Fielder-Civil, a marriage characterized in the documentary as all-consuming and painful. Fielder-Civil introduced her to heroin and crack, and there is much footage of Amy walking with him in public after concerts and award shows. At one awards event, Fielder-Civil arrives at the foot of the stage and walks away with her, his arm around her neck in a gesture of possessiveness. We learn she could not be separated from him until he was forcefully incarcerated and later divorced her. By Amy’s own admission, the relationship was a drug.
Amy brilliantly illustrates the modern myth of god/goddess destruction. The artist pulls the strings of the public’s heart, who predictably are fickle and restless waiting for the next sensation. The commercial music industry has created this throwaway artist society with mythological heroes and heroines, even those banished or doomed, whose spiral descent is commodified. Amy makes one wonder how extraordinary it must be for a megastar to not succumb to drugs and alcohol or general retreat. The film presents a horrifying picture of what success actually looks like, mirrored in the fearful faces of Amy Winehouse as she walks to fame and away from it in her short life. At first stunned at the ignorant questions she is asked as an artist, she is later repulsed by the invasion of her privacy by the media. The cackling sounds of cameras and flashes are heard in the background of the public spaces she traversed.
The documentary shows that almost everyone was a player in the mediated culture that surrounded Amy Winehouse’s career — even her father who brings photographers to St. Lucia, where she becomes drug free, and who chastises her when two tourists ask for a photo with her and she is less than overjoyed. Corporate media worked to orchestrate this narrative of Amy Winehouse, the hopeless addict, and there are numerous film clips that illustrate this intention.
We learn through the documentary that even before she became famous, Amy Winehouse was a substance abuser with food and alcohol that began as a youth pastime. Throughout the footage it appears that Amy Winehouse’s support system — husband, friends, promoters, and parents — seemed clueless about the nature of addiction. Going to rehab, or not going to rehab as her signature song goes, did not seem to tackle the underlying issues behind her relapses.
Amy shows that her demise was not a public sacrifice but a young life that systematically unraveled under the watch of her support system, despite medical advice. Amy Winehouse’s own culpability in this labyrinth of neglect is central. The film shows how the success pendulum cares not for beautiful souls but is a cunning predator that can kill with animal instinct the wondrous artists of our world who exist to enlighten us and ease our every day lives. Despite Amy Winehouse’s gifts, her vulnerability was exploited by corporate media. She died from alcohol poisoning in July 2011 at the age of 27. Filmmaker Asif Aspadia dignifies Amy Winehouse, the woman who was always worthy of our love.
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