I have, for a long while, been critical of modern music which to these 40-plus year-old ears often sounds like the same song with the same message sung to a different tune. The subject matter treads the safe waters of romantic proclamations and freak-o mating habits with barely a hint of the person behind the lyrics. Not so with Amy Winehouse whose music often played as a Greek chorus to whatever was happening in her life. Yes, we got powerful music, but most refreshing is that the lyrics were absolutely her.
Asif Kapadia’s extraordinary documentary Amy is neither exploitation nor hagiography. Nor is it the safety net like recent pre-packaged so-called documentaries about Katy Perry or One Direction. This is a movie about a person, an extraordinary talent whose rise to fame was beset by personal and emotional problems that cut her life short, forcing her into the infamous “27 Club” that small list of performers that includes Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain whose candle burned out when they all reached the age of 27.
Though there are tense moments that suggest the oncoming tide, Amy is much more than just a work of foreshadowing. We see the progression of a pretty teenage girl whose famous persona blooms before our very eyes. As the documentary opens, we catch up with the singer as a teenager seen through grainy home movie footage at a birthday party. There she is, before the makeup and the hair that defined her onstage persona as the camera catches her in an impromptu rendition of “Happy Birthday.” What comes from her, even in that moment of silliness, is a voice that seemed to be channeling the great R&B artists of another time. We can hear a lot of Billie Holiday, Etta James, Nina Simone, but always with a quality that was uniquely hers. She had a voice that was ready for the world, but as we follow her journey through this film we start to wonder if she was ready as well.
Amy follows this pretty Jewish girl born in Southgate London with a gift bestowed by God, contained in a personality that was all too human. I admit I knew the voice but I never really considered the person behind it. Through startlingly private home movie footage, we catch Winehouse through the years as success finds her all too quickly. Her personality reveals a young woman with the heart of a lion, bound up in a girl whose teenage insecurities were still lurking about. Britney may have bellowed that she was “Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” but Amy seemed to be living it. We can always see in her eyes at times a determination to make something of herself, but always behind it is the fear that she may not get there.
Her great achievement was that she managed to carve out a persona and a voice that were all her own. All through the film we see unguarded footage of the singer as she rises from her London neighborhood to capture the imagination of the entire world. Dotted throughout that journey are stopovers to the songs she was working on at the moment, always caught in the moment, they commented on her situation. When she is struggling in her relationship with her boyfriend she wrote “Back to Black”; when alcohol began to consume her life, she wrote “Rehab”; When she was lonely after a breakup, she sang “We’re Still Friends.” It was all very personal, very confessional. It draws you closer to what was in Amy’s heart rather than what was in her manager’s business plan.
Yet, the most refreshing thing about this movie is that it has it both ways with Amy Winehouse. It is neither sainthood or demonology. We see that Winehouse was the sealer of her own fate, and that her drinking problem was allowed to continue long after it should have been addressed. We see that Winehouse, and her promoters kept their eye on the prize rather than on her health, pushing her into concert dates rather than dealing with a problem that should have been dealt with. In a scene that might have been played for grotesque effect in a bio-pic we see that early in 2011, Amy is forced to cancel her European tour much to the anger of her fans. They don’t know, of course, that the singer is living on borrowed time.
It is refreshing, however, that the doesn’t close on that sour note. The end of the movie features Tony Bennett, her idol, eulogizing Amy’s music and her spirit. Again, it’s not sainthood, just a reminder not to focus on the tragedy of her final days but the spirit of the music she left behind.