Wednesday, July 22, 2015
Before seeing the new documentary Amy I thought of Amy Winehouse as a tragedy of excess, another artist whose addictions overwhelmed their creative impulses and whose life ended up being a cautionary tale. It is to the great credit of director Asif Kapadia that Amy doesn't whitewash Winehouse's substance abuse while at the same time reclaiming her as a major talent who became a casualty of the celebrity business. Winehouse is without question among recent pop stars the one least temperamentally suited to be famous, and Kapadia's film asks us to think very hard about what we should expect from the artists we admire.
Amy begins with Winehouse as a teenager singing "Happy Birthday" to a friend. Kapadia weaves together home movies, TV broadcasts, unused promotional footage, still photos, and many, many shots of Winehouse being followed by paparazzi. The effect is immersive; Kapadia is describing the arc of a life without vamping on the lurid details. Off-camera narration is provided by a large cast of friends, family, and peers who without question speak of their love for Winehouse and the way that the singer's demons tore their relationships apart. Images of Winehouse in various states of intoxication are placed over interviews with people who either couldn't help Winehouse or didn't think there was a problem. The lack of interest that Winehouse's parents displayed in her self-professed bulimia is shocking, and indeed if Amy has a villain it is Winehouse's father Mitch. After leaving the family when Amy was a girl, Winehouse re-entered his daughter's life and in Kapadia's telling viewed her as an asset to be tapped. There are many disturbing moments in Amy, but none perhaps more so than the moment Mitch interrupts his daughter's (relatively) sober idyll in St. Lucia with a reality television crew. With such a father, did Winehouse ever have a chance?
Kapadia's film doesn't attempt to elide the fact that Winehouse was an addict, she used prodigiously with her husband Blake Fielder and wasn't easily convinced to seek help. But always there was the music. Winehouse's first love was jazz, and it's suggested that a career performing in small clubs would have suited her just fine. There are numerous examples of Winehouse's vocal abilities in the film, but the most remarkable moment comes late. While recording with Tony Bennett for Bennett's Duets album, a cleaned-up Winehouse frets about wasting her hero's time. Neither Bennett nor Winehouse could ever have imagined this conversation would be seen - they probably forgot it was being filmed - and so there's nothing affected about the way Bennett reassures Winehouse that they'll keep working until they get it right. Bennett viewed Winehouse as a peer, and the scene points to just how much Winehouse saw herself as a student of music. The last months of Winehouse's life were filled with ideas for new projects, and the film suggests that Winehouse's final spiral was the result of being forced to sing songs she was tired of at contractually obligated concert dates. Implicit in Amy is the idea that there was a moment when Winehouse could have been saved, but by then she was already a punchline (as a painful montage points out) and neither her father, her manger, nor the rest of us were willing to again let her be that girl who sang "Happy Birthday".