She had an intimate relationship with music, like it was a person…she would die for it.
In ten or twenty years, my kid siblings may come across Amy, the new documentary that chronicles Amy Winehouse’s meteoric rise to fame in the first years of the millennium, and watch it much the way I recently watched What Happened, Miss Simone? That is, with a certain familiarity with the subject, but enough remove that the film’s revelations are brand new information to the uninitiated.
Watching Amy myself, though, felt like a brutal rehashing of a life I remember quite clearly watching play out as an addiction-fueled roller coaster to its sad, premature end. The highs, the lows. The even higher highs and lower lows…
Director Asif Kapadia (who also did Senna and seriously, go watch that) has crafted a nearly seamless account of a short but full life. From the first shot, home video from 1998 of Winehouse and her friends celebrating a 14th birthday with the classic song, her voice effortlessly upstaging the other girls, we are on our way.
The film moves mostly chronologically from there, and manages the feat of being a talking head documentary without the talking heads. Instead, Kapadia deftly weaves together home videos, snapshots and, as her star rises, television appearances and concerts, to recount how this girl who figured she could always “fall back” on her voice finds herself recording a duet with her idol, Tony Bennett.
For a stretch of a few years, it was impossible to not be aware of Winehouse, both her successes, and her escapades – the binges, botched shows and brawls with paparazzi. I turned up the radio with the rest of ’em when Back to Black came up. I remember watching the Grammys the moment she won best record. Then, like pretty much everyone else not intimately aware of her circumstances, I shook my head in superficial sadness at the news of her untimely death – another great light extinguished unnecessarily.
What Kapadia’s film does so masterfully, then (aside from the stellar structuring), is tell the rest of Winehouse’s story, the pressures and struggles and emotions none of us could possibly have known otherwise. Though there’s some controversy now of the portrayals in the film, Kapadia certainly didn’t create these narratives out of thin air.
Cases in point: At 15, Winehouse told her parents about her new diet – “I can eat all I want then expel it all right after” – and they only realized much later she was admitting to bulimia. At the time, they simply “brushed it off.” Years later, she’d try to get clean of heroine and booze, escaping to St. Lucia and asking her father to join her for support. He showed up with a camera crew for a reality TV show he’d signed on for.
But I digress. At its heart, Amy is a raw portrait of a young woman with immense talent matched only by her immense vulnerability. The film finds balance in celebrating her best moments with a behind-the-scenes feel (I had chills as we’re in the studio as she records Back to Black – did she have any idea what she was in store for with that single?) while candidly presenting her most difficult times and the toll they took on her and those who loved her.
And when my little brother and sister do discover this doc someday (and I’ll make sure they do), they’ll find in it a poignant cautionary tale, to be sure. But they’ll surely also be inspired to pay Winehouse the best of honors: adding her to their playlists.