Amy documentary review: how the music dies

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Amy green light

An immense film, looming in tragedy, an infuriating portrait of how celebrity warps artistry and how wealth warps love and how suffering trumps everything.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

She told us. She told us flat out how it would be. She told us she was a mess. She told us she was self-destructive. She told us fame would kill her. She said it in her lyrics — not even halfway, not in any way metaphorical or sidewise. She said it in interviews. That’s all right here in the astonishing documentary Amy, one of the best films of the year so far: the sound recordings journalists made while talking to her, the lyrics right up there on the screen so there isn’t even any need to try to unravel her sometimes gloriously muddied jazzy elocution. Amy Winehouse might have been a poet, but there was nothing figurative or symbolic in what she said. She was telling us her blunt, undisguised truth.

Amy Winehouse, one of the most original musical artists of the 21st century, if not the last quarter of a century or longer, died in July 2011 from alcohol poisoning exacerbated by years of substance abuse and bulimia. She was only 27 years old. This is not only a terrible, immeasurable loss to the people who loved her, but a terrible, immeasurable loss to music, to art, to culture. As someone here says, if she was this amazing so young, what would she be like in a couple of decades? We will never know. You don’t have to have been a particular fan of Winehouse’s — I knew her hits, but that’s about it — to be saddened and depressed by this, or to be deeply affected by this film. (I was in tears by the end.) We lost her wisdom, and the angry beauty with which she expressed it. Amy is a requiem for her, but it is also a condemnation of us, that we let it happen, that we turned her into a joke before she burned out for good. That we had no pity, and that that fueled her downfall.

Winehouse shouted her despair for everyone to hear. It’s what made her music so powerful: it was raw and real and full of pain and rage. And no one listened. Or no one believed her. Or no one cared. We see that here. Even her fans, when she was having a very public meltdown, were all “We love your raw, real pain and rage, how dare to pull away from giving us more!” Amy has no sympathy for those fans, like the couple who apologize to Winehouse for bothering her for a photo while she’s in hiding in the Caribbean, trying to get clean and healthy… and she’s like, “You can’t be too sorry or you’d have left me alone.” And she’s 100 percent right.

This is an immense movie, looming in tragedy and portent, an infuriating and dismal portrait of how celebrity warps artistry and how wealth warps love and how suffering trumps everything. (This is from acclaimed and multi-award-winning documentarian Asif Kapadia… and Amy will only crowd his mantlepiece even more.) It’s not true, actually, that no one heard Winehouse’s cries for help, but she pushed away her friends from Before her fame and was left with no one but those who were, perhaps, blinded to everything but their own greed, along for the ride. (Several of those old friends are interviewed here, never appearing on camera but only in voiceover, and their pain over their inability to help their friend is heartbreaking.) Winehouse’s father, Mitch, who was already a controversial figure for how he seemed to be riding on his famous daughter’s coattails in the mid 2000s, has been complaining in recent days that Amy paints him as a villain… and he’s not wrong in that. He certainly looks like a villain, disappearing from Winehouse’s life when she was nine years old — and daring to say here (though it’s not clear when he said this, if it’s a new interview or something from before her death) that she seemed unaffected even as a child by this — and not (it seems) reappearing until she got rich and famous. “I ain’t got the time” to go to rehab, Winehouse sang in 2006, “and if my daddy thinks I’m fine…” Which he did. Maybe if she’d gotten help then? But Winehouse, who was so self-aware about her pain, figured that it was her father abandoning her during her vulnerable teenage years that contributed to her many, many issues. And when he came back, it appears she worshipped him and heeded him in almost everything…

Of course, “personal responsibility,” etc: Winehouse was ultimately responsible for Winehouse, but when her fame meant she was surrounded by yes-men, including the father with whom she had such a complicated relationship… Jesus, this movie is rough going. She may have been “a complete force of nature,” as one record company exec describes her, but even personality cannot win out over the demands of corporate “art” and contractually obligated fame and a gossip-hungry public. We kill the things we love. Winehouse would recognize that sentiment — she sang about that, too — but that doesn’t let us off the hook. And Amy doesn’t either.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Amy for its representation of girls and women.

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Tue, Jun 30, 2015 3:17pm

The only time I saw Amy Winehouse ‘interviewed’ was when she was interacting with Simon Amstell and the rest of the crew on Never Mind The Buzzcocks. That was such a weird, raw, funny episode, I felt I was sitting in someone’s living room at a the aftermath of a fun party that had gone all mellow and tiptoing at the edge of someone having a breakdown…and that was aired in 2006. (Yeah, I know that show is supposed to be funny. I’ve seen a lot of them. This felt different to me.)

I had already put this on my list to see when I first heard about it ages ago.

Sat, Jul 18, 2015 6:47am

It’s a hard film to watch. Really after watching it, all I wanted to do was cozy up and listen to her music again, and hear the rawness in her voice.