By the time I first heard Amy Winehouse, she was already a singer on the upswing, rising to superstardom off the strength of her hit single, “Rehab.” I was an instant fan. I bought Back to Black right away, and spent the next several weeks listening to the album over and over like a mental patient. It was just something I couldn’t get enough of.
Her voice was haunting, her sexuality sizzling, her lyrics cutting and raw. To say that Amy Winehouse was a force of nature seems like a sad understatement by this point, but it was true just the same. She held a command over her talent that was without compare among her contemporaries.
When Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning at 27, an age that so many tortured musicians for some reason can’t seem to get past, it was not much of a surprise. Her personal struggles with alcohol, drugs, depression, bulimia, and all the drama of her private life had been played out in excruciating detail in the press. For the more cynical, it was only a matter of time. For the rest of us, it was another sad tale of a star that shot too high too fast, and then fizzled and fell back to earth.
The documentary Amy, by director Asif Kapadia, explores Winehouse’s story through the recollections of her friends, family, and colleagues, as well as in her own words. The film is made almost entirely from videos, newsreels, and recorded performances, stringing together the moments of Winehouse’s life in a way that makes you feel like a voyeur¾which is great during some moments, but discomforting for much of the last half of the film as her life begins to unravel.
The film has received rave reviews and continues to draw an audience, a rare thing for a documentary. But the subject matter transcends just music, or jazz music in particular, which was Winehouse’s style of choice. And Kapadia does an admirable job of capturing the humanity of his central character, her dreams and her talent, and the fatal flaws through which she was undone.
Having now seen the film, I can see why Winehouse’s family has disavowed it despite pledging their support during the making of it. Her father and her mother come off as being rather aloof to her problems. When confronted with her bulimia as a young teenager, her mother admitted thinking it was a phase that would just pass by. Her father rejected the idea that she needed to go rehab early on, only to reverse himself later when it appeared that her alcohol and drug abuse was impacting her career. And then there’s the ex-husband whose already received more attention than he deserves.
Only the people closest to the situation can really know just who enabled Winehouse and who actually tried to help her. There had been ample discussion about the whos and the whys long before the film came out, so I won’t get into it here. And Kapadia’s documentary is ultimately not about why Winehouse died, but how she lived. And in that, it definitely succeeds in telling its tale.
You’ll probably get more out of Amy if you were a fan of her music or a music fan in general, but it is worth seeing even if only for its quality as a documentary film. Even though it is ultimately a heart-breaking story, it does shine some rays of light on Winehouse’s stellar talent. Still, I for one would much prefer that Amy Winehouse was a living legend rather than a dead one. Rest in peace, Sweetie.