AMY: Amy Winehouse Is Not Dead
The end was built into the beginning for Amy Winehouse, the retro soul whose tragic chase for oblivion is detailed in Asif Kapadia’s car-crash-compelling new documentary. Amy doubles as an autopsy of a fallen idol and as a murder mystery, which is the film’s unique edge: director Kapadia offers a clear through-line of blame to follow if we’re going to ask, “Who killed Amy Winehouse?”
The answer, of course, is that we did. The big question hanging over the doc, a collection of all the disasters and missed red lights along the way to her death at 27, is “How did we let this happen?”You could hear Winehouse’s voice from outer space, a brassy, soulful croon, a once-living almanac of the giants of jazz. Amy opens with a home movie of her as a teen singing “Happy Birthday” hitting the notes with dramatic vibrato, already showing signs of a young diva whose voice came from no real precedent. Ominously, she’s pantomime-dragging a cigarette, which signals even at an early age that this girl had a love affair with fire.
It’s Winehouse’s complicity in her own undoing that fascinates Kapadia, who denies us the kind of “behind the music” documentary we might expect, filled with talking heads and effusive hagiography. She died of a thirst, drunk to the gills and alone in her Camden apartment, and it’s everything that led to this grim finale that Amy shows us with unflinching honesty.
Kapadia feathers dread into every nook and cranny. A long stretch of the film recalls Winehouse bored and in the limbo years between her 2003 UK breakout Frank and 2006 smash Back to Black as she willingly wastes away, avoids writing again, gets obliterated nightly and engages in increasingly less casual drug-taking. It’s here in Camden that she meets Blake Fielder-Civil, her on-and-off lover whose gravelly audio testimonies confess to introducing Winehouse to the world of even harder drugs. The sounds and words of Back to Black detail their tumultuous relationship and shattering breakups. It’s most transparent in the title track, which we see Winehouse write and record with improvisatory candor alongside producer Mark Ronson, who gave the album its vintage jukebox timbre.
Winehouse’s parents, by the way, are at the epicenter of her ruin according to Amy. When Winehouse’s manager, Raye Cosbert, and Island Records insisted that she go to rehab after footage leaked of the singer freebasing, Mitch Winehouse said “She doesn’t need to go to rehab.” Though her father has now alleged there was more to what he said than the film shows, it’s proof enough for Kapadia that he guiltily ignored her withering reality to keep the gravy train flowing.
Winehouse’s image, a collage of influences defined by towering beehive, Cleopatra eyes and rockabilly sundresses, made it easy to label her as a self-aware train wreck. So it was in everybody’s interest to keep that train imploding, and to have to keep performing “Rehab,” the song that built her mythology but now plays like a barely coded cry for help, obviously drove Winehouse mad.
Recall the YouTube footage of her final performance, at a Belgrade Music Festival just weeks before her death, where she’s decaying before our eyes, onstage, out of her mind, and can’t remember the words or who she is, almost like a child dying of stage fright who wants to disappear.
Kapadia’s research team also acquired paparazzi B-roll footage that takes us straight into the maw of hell. It verges on exploitative trickery, as vertiginous artillery bursts of flashbulbs assault Winehouse at her lowest moments (visiting Fielder incarcerated, or being wended through a mob after his arrest). But Kapadia’s decision is necessary to show the violence of what the media did to her, and how our own hunger to watch a downward spiral actually pushed her even further down the drain. We made it easy for Winehouse to throw her life down the trash.
The tragedy is that her death is now what has to define her life, because it was so short. Amy is mostly one big long horror show, but it also captures Winehouse’s anarchic spark, and how the real Amy lives in her music. Go back to the songs, and you’ll find she’s still there.Ryan Lattanzio has written film reviews for myriad publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and Indiewire. Follow him on Twitter.
The indelible 2006 single “Rehab,” an stubborn declaration of treatment resistance incongruously sounding like a bouncy American R&B girl-group single circa 1965, was both blessing and curse for Amy Winehouse. A blessing in that it rocketed her to international stardom; a curse in that its offbeat subject and bluntly confessional lyrics introduced to that wide public the image of a hapless substance-abuser that she would never shake.
Of course she didn’t shake it because it was, to a large extent, true: Five years later she’d be dead from alcohol poisoning after innumerable embarrassing public incidents. But if notoriety hadn’t become so inseparable from her fame, the “train wreck” aspects eventually overshadowing every other quality, it seems quite likely Amy Winehouse and her remarkable talent might still be with us.
The new documentary Amy is a straightforward chronicle of this short life, which burned a little too brightly and flamed out at age 27. Senna director Asif Kapadia’s film relies almost entirely on archival video—much of it hitherto little-seen footage shot by family and friends—to trace the subject’s journey from humble North London origins to professional “discovery” while still in her late teens and beyond. She was hardly a pop-chart natural by contemporary standards: Her precociously rich, grainy, drawling voice was full of character and musicality, sans the extraneous showoff pyrotechnics of the American Idol age.
Compared to everyone from Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan to Macy Gray, she frankly voiced preference for singers of prior generations, and her original (albeit often co-written) songs reflected that in channeling retro R&B, jazz, Tin Pan Alley and even reggae.
The 2003 debut album Frank won considerable critical acclaim, while her performance chops and sassy, pretense-free personality also won converts in other media. But 2006’s sophomore effort Back to Black — released after considerable delay caused by writer’s block and personal turmoil — made Winehouse a phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic. It eventually won five Grammys, became 1987’s best-selling U.K. album, and logged other milestones—extraordinary for a classic “critic’s pet” disc so out of synch with the prevailing commercial trends. (Her penchant for 1960s bouffants and micro-minis was equally, delightfully anachronistic.)
“I don’t think I’ll be at all famous,” she muses in one of Amy’s myriad interview clips. “I don’t think I could handle it. I’d go mad.” She was all too right. Tough and self-confident in many respects, she proved all too fallible in many others. Probably the worst thing to happen to her was meeting Blake Fielder-Civil, a Camden music scenester many blamed for introducing her to hard drugs and maintaining their perpetually on-off relationship (neither were exactly faithful) to bankroll his own addictions. But perhaps just as destructive was the glare of celebrity—particularly that venomous kind they specialize in Britain, where tabloids have no shame about dogging a famous local’s every move, particularly when they’re stumbling. As her health visibly declined and every private low seemed publicly leaked, paparazzi and reporters only stepped up their incessant harassment.
Though they cooperated with Kapadiato to an extent, Winehouse’s family has since distanced themselves from the documentary, her father in particular calling it “preposterous.” But then, it hardly flatters him. Perhaps the most shocking moment here comes at a late point when Winehouse was hiding out on a vacation island, temporarily weaned off drugs if not alcohol. And at that fragile juncture, her father showed up with a camera crew, having negotiated his own “tell-all” TV deal without consulting her. While it’s clear many of those riding the Winehouse gravy train recklessly encouraged her committing to more work (especially concert tours) than was good for her during her long decline, this brazen instance of parental exploitation really takes the cake.
(For those interested in a more family-sanctioned viewpoint, the traveling Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait opens at the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum on July 29, showcasing a wealth of personal memorabilia donated by her brother Alex. It’s accompanied by You Know I’m No Good, a selection of new works by various local and other contemporary artists specifically inspired by Winehouse and her music. Both exhibits run through Nov. 1.)
The late star’s talent still shines in numerous performance excerpts, and her personality proves highly engaging in candid and chat-show bits. Like Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck , another recent feature about a musical luminary dimmed far too soon, Amy is long (about two and a quarter hours), and a bit exhausting as well as exhaustive. Both these lives ended at 27, amidst enormous media attention. Despite the quantities of unfamiliar footage in each film, diehard fans may find little new information, while more casual ones may think they’ve gotten too much of a good thing by the end. Heck is by far the more imaginatively packaged of the two; Amy , with its surfeit of clips shot on camera phones then blown up for the big screen, will probably look better watched on your TV at home.
Still, it’s a fitting, well-crafted memorial, one whose larger-than-life subject already seems ensconced in that special wing of Rock Immortality occupied by the charismatically self-destructive who died while still at the peak of their abilities.
Dennis Harvey has been publishing film reviews since the era of the typewriter. He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and currently writes for Variety and Fandor’s Keyframe.