Many of us in the United States did not know who Amy Winehouse was when we learned through media reports of her tragic death at the age of 27. I was one of those people.
Asif Kapadia’s moving documentary “Amy” ensures that we know who, and what, we lost that July day in 2011 and that we feel that loss intensely. It also unapologetically asks us to understand when sudden fame – and its associated institutions – projects itself, full blown, on young, talented and vulnerable artists.
The documentary is full of home videos, photographs and films of professional and amateur performances of Amy singing live and in studios. We hear interviews with her best friends Juliette Ashy and Lauren Gilbert, her manager Nick Shymansky, her producer Salaam Remi, her keyboardist Sam Beste, her bodyguard Andrew Morris — people who loved her as a person and recognized her as the unpretentious person she was, someone with the big giant laugh who spoke from her heart. We hear her father speak. We see videos of and hear her boyfriend/husband/ex-husband Blake Fielder-Cecil speak in a way that always seems to be undermining Amy’s sobriety.
As Amy’s fame skyrockets, we’re shown hoards of paparazzi’s flashbulbs going off like a hailstorm outside her home. We see her TV performances on The David Letterman Show, concerts around the world, and some very moving cuts from the taping of her duet of ‘Body and Soul,’ whose lyrics Amy wrote with her hero Tony Bennett. Bennett is one of the few who understood that Amy was a jazz singer, not just a great voice, and who understood her potential as a musician, not as a commodity.
Kapadia so touchingly portrays on screen the moment when Tony Bennett pronounced her album “Back to Black” as the winner of the 2008 Pop Vocal Record of the Year, beating out Rihanna and JayZ, Justin Timberlake and Beyonce, while Amy, via live feed from the Grammys, is in a room with her band, managers and fans back in the UK, spontaneously commenting. She is stunned upon hearing her name pronounced by Tony Bennett, her idol, not because she won, but because her idol had announced her name.
I rallied when I saw Amy clean, writing lyrics and music, and it was painful to see her failures to remain drug- and alcohol-free. The director reveals little by little, the layers of Amy’s emotional complexity. Halfway through the movie, he reveals a new struggle with bulimia, which had plagued her from when she was a teenager. We root for her to succeed and just be Amy, but this adds one more challenge.
The movie also deals gently with the depression she experienced (“I always go back to black”). In the opening scenes, she expresses her dissatisfaction with her emotionally weak mother and her absent father, an unhappiness, which followed her through her life. She is trapped by her neediness, her disease of alcoholism, and the demands of entertainment contracts to perform.
As someone who has been around family members dealing with addictions and co-dependencies for many years, I appreciated Kapadia’s efforts to look not just at the disease and addiction side of chemical dependencies and bulimia, at major efforts by many of her associates to encourage her to go to rehab and who scheduled interventions, but I also appreciated his treatment of the psychological side of her neediness. Kapadia never explicitly blames Amy’s father for the role he played in her depression, but he doesn’t shy away from providing us with footage and interviews that reveal his failure to be the father who Amy wanted and needed. When a trip for a badly needed vacation and opportunity for Amy to stay sober and be herself with friends who support her sobriety is scheduled, Mr. Winehouse brings along a camera crew. The voiceover indicates Amy wanted her father, plain and simple, something that it seems to me she sadly did not resolve within her short life.
Amy was fortunate that she had friends who cared enough to insist she go to rehab and who initiated interventions. This is so often not the case. But the ‘power person’ in her life, her father, advocated for her to keep her contractual obligations over her obligation to protect her own health and life, which we hear clearly in Mr. Winehouse’s own words. He is the one who Amy listened to because she was so needy of his acceptance.
While I was rooting for Amy, and hoping she would say “NO NO NO” to global tours that were detrimental to her health, only to see scenes of her drunk onstage and being booed (“I want my money back!”), the deep emotional scars of her life were evidently playing themselves out over and over again. Even when Amy committed to changing her life, the scars and the disease were still there, and one more transgression was all it took to silence her artistic genius.
Amy was a prolific songwriter and a rare talent. She didn’t want fame, she wanted to make music. “I don’t think that I could handle it. I’d go mad,” she said early in her career.
One image from early in the film stuck with me throughout: the video of the emerging superstar in the back of a car, wrapped in a “Hello Kitty” blanket, trying to get some sleep. Amy was a child thrust into the limelight because of her immense talent, vulnerable to the end, and Kapadia wants us to remember this.
The final scene of the movie shows the outside of the London synagogue where Amy Winehouse’s funeral was held, as guests were filing out, many wearing kippot (head-coverings) to show their respect, and weeping at the loss of their friend and a great talent, who many of them had tried to save. In the end, Amy Winehouse was always just a simple Jewish girl from North London.