Coming out of watching this engaging and involving documentary about the all too short life of Brit singer Amy Winehouse I regretted laughing at any joke about her drinking and drug use or reading any of the tabloid or TMZ articles about her. While she was spiraling downwards it was almost like we thought nothing we did contributed or worse, that it wasn’t happening to a human being. At the end of the film I had I felt like I did when I heard she died. Knowing that she was a once in a generation type talent and deserved better from the public. It was like losing her all over again. That is how good Asif Kapadia’s (Senna) film is.
Amy Winehouse only managed to squeak 27 years out of life and to release two albums, but she was able to make a huge mark on the world despite the shortness. Ultimately her downfall is shown to be largely a result of the people around her not standing up and getting her the help she so obviously needed. Were they afraid that their cash cow would dry up (father Mitchell Winehouse – who, despite his involvement in the making of it, after the film was finished claimed that it was a false portrayal of his daughter) or that their drug supply would disappear (ex-husband Blake Fielder)?
Her hit song “Rehab” described to all who cared to really listen what was going on in Amy’s life. Most ignored the cry for help and just fell sway to the catchy girl groups of the 60s beats. Part of the reason people fell for Amy’s music, besides her incredible voice, was the lyrics. They were intimate and personal, reflecting whatever was going on in her life. All her pain and tribulations were there for us to listen to. The lyrics on her albums pull back the curtain on a life that was pretty bleak. A smart move by the director was to put up onscreen the lyrics of her songs as concert footage played behind. That combo of seeing the words and knowing that she was living them is very moving.
It was pretty much game over when she hooked up with another self destructive type in her future husband Blake Fielder. He admits on film that he was the one who introduced Amy to crack cocaine. Fielder breaks up with Amy to go back to his previous girlfriend, but she is not able to handle life without him. After the break-up her drug use and drinking got worse with her friend saying that her flat looked like a crack den at one point. She constantly phones him in the hounding way that the press followed her later. Suddenly as she is becoming a star (coincidence??) Fielder is back and they are getting married.
Her addictions became more of a pull to her than the music which she so obviously loved. She loved music and was a true jazz singer (stated by none other than Tony Bennett himself during the film), but she could not adjust to the fame that comes along with being a music star. A poignant and haunting moment happens during an interview she did in 2003, before fame had its hooks in her, where she tells the interviewer that she could not handle being famous, that it would drive her mad. Devastating to listen to.
These intimate moments come courtesy of the director’s reluctance to use interviews from today or footage that we have seen a million times over. Much of the film is comprised of videos shot by friends or rarely seen interviews/performances with voiceovers in the background. The film obviously took a lot of time to get together with Kapadia getting Fielder, her father Mitch, long time friends, and even her first manager, Nick Shymansky to contribute footage or be interviewed. At times it does devolve into something akin to the tabloids that Kapadia is criticizing though thankfully that is not too often. Instead while watching we feel as if we are living her life alongside her. It was one of those instances that even though I knew the ending I found myself hoping it would change.
Another target of Kapadia’s film is the British tabloid culture. That area of the world is famous for its paparazzi (need we look back to Diana’s death?) that hounds stars in all the entertainment businesses living there. They followed her around day and night trying to the most graphic photo of her strung out or drunk. Smelling blood they hounded her to the point that we could see her going “mad” in their pictures. The more smeared mascara, rat’s nest hair or blood involved the better. Amy was not treated with the respect a human being deserves; she was pursued like an object until her death.
What I most admired the film for was its insistence that in many ways Amy made her own bed, messed it up and then laid in it. She stuck with people who were using her despite the fact that she was smart and sassy enough to stand up to them. Amy was not only unlucky, she was also unwise. Seemingly never developing enough of thick skin in order to deal with disappointment (father leaving the family, Blake going to jail, etc.). Amy Winehouse burned brightly, but not nearly long enough.