This documentary by Asif Kapadia (Senna) chronicles the meteoric rise and tragic fall of singer Amy Winehouse, who was all of 27 years old when she was found dead of alcohol poisoning, her body ravaged by the effects of bulimia and substance abuse. Kapadia uses only existing footage taken by either those close to Amy, or the media. We only hear the voices of those close to her, we never see them. At times in the movie I missed their faces, because we can read faces better than just voices. Still, this allows Kapadia to portray Amy’s life without interruption, as it was briefly lived.
That she was a unique and major talent is clear from the opening images of a chubby pre-teen, authoritatively belting out “Happy Birthday” in a home video, with the chops of a much more mature singer. That she and her working class family were ill-equipped to deal with fame is also abundantly clear. This too-long film condenses well the brutal cycle of adoration and rejection of a fickle public and a ravenous media. There is nothing both love more than a success story, unless it’s a success story that implodes as nastily and spectacularly as possible. This they seem to love with the cruelest glee. And this, Amy Winehouse gave them in spades.
The movie shows how most of the songs she wrote were transparently autobiographical, including Rehab, her monster hit, and Love is a Losing Game. It shows her at her best, and then, rather relentlessly, at her worst. And the same goes for the audience and the media: they adore her, then they jeer her mercilessly when she’s down, finally shedding tears for her untimely death.
As is common in these kinds of stories (see: Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. See also, Jackson, Michael), toxic people (her husband Blake Fielder) glommed on to her and were instrumental in her unraveling. It’s easy to assign blame: a money-struck father, an ineffectual mother, a junkie leech of a husband, managers who saw the dollar signs at the expense of her health. But what about her own responsibility? Amy Winehouse looked and behaved like a tough cookie, but she wasn’t. She was sensitive and vulnerable. She easily fell prey to bad influences and desperately needed someone to impose clear boundaries. However, there is an amazing scene in which she shows that she had enormous willpower, even if she used it mainly to self-destroy. She comes onstage in Belgrade, completely wasted, in front of thousands of adoring fans, and simply refuses to sing. Other performers tend to claim “exhaustion” or a sore throat, and cancel. Not her. She could clean up when she wanted to, and dive into mayhem just as well.
According to her own mother, Amy Winehouse was too big a personality to control, even when she was a child. But although she grew up in a house rattled by divorce, she was surrounded by a tight-knit circle of loving family and friends, some of whose members, like her first manager and her childhood friends, always had her best interests at heart. Not so her dad, Mitch, whose infidelities the young Amy never really could get over, and who, as much as he loved her, seemed to care more for the money rolling in when what she needed was a strong hand to discipline and guide her. It must be unendurable to know that those whom you love most (dad, husband) are exploiting you.
Like a trans person trapped in a body that doesn’t feel right, Amy identified as a jazz singer, not a pop star. She admired the great jazz vocalists and would have been happy to be one of them. In today’s world, that is not a financially winning proposition, and she didn’t have the stubbornness or the clarity of purpose, perhaps, to guide her own career in that direction. For the music industry, she was too talented to be in a small niche. It is heartbreaking to see her reaction when none other than her idol, Tony Bennett, announces she has won the Grammy for best artist of the year. We see them recording the song Body and Soul together, and Amy is nervous and Bennett is sweet, patient and encouraging. Her loss breaks his heart and ours.