| December 1, 2015

The storied life of singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse has been the stuff of legend, hyperbole, tragedy, and ongoing interest ever since her untimely death in 2011 at the age of twenty-seven. In the years since, her style—both musically as well as aesthetically—has placed her firmly in the realm of cultural icons of the 21st century. Her brutally honest lyrics, striking appearance, and funky, Billie Holliday-esque vocal stylings created the perfect package of a stand-out artist, and her influence continues to slyly reveal itself in alternately subtle and obvious ways to this day. She opened the door for such pop-soul sensations as Adele and Sam Smith, inspired a tribute song from Green Day, brought the beehive back into fashion, and, unfortunately, set the contemporary standard for self-destructive behavior—the latter of which overshadowed her immense talent for far too long. With the new documentary Amy, we’re given the most intimate portrait yet of the artist in action, seeing her come back to life before our very eyes for a brief period of time, before having to endure her rapid descent “to black”, as it were. It’s about as raw and authentic an edited narrative could be, akin to a visual scrapbook with a diary along the binding.

Director Asif Kapadia assembles home videos, rare concert footage, television appearances, interviews, and photos to piece together a chronological account of Winehouse’s career. The narration is provided by Winehouse herself—often times putting her lyrics at the forefront for poetic insight—as well as many of the people in her life. For the most part, it’s a self-documented character study, like something in between Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man and Brett Morgen’s recently released Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. The real treasure of the piece is in how the abundance of footage during that time allows for Winehouse’s career to unfold in such an unconventionally vivid, nuanced, and organic way that is unprecedented for a film of its kind. It makes for a full-fledged and hypnotic experience, as we, the voyeurs, bare witness to a tragedy in the making as Winehouse completely unravels for all the world to see. You can’t take your eyes off it, in the best and worst sense of art reflecting life, and though you know what’s coming, you wish you could do something to stop it. Instead your left helpless, and one of the prurient interests that develops as a viewer is in the how and why things went so far wrong. A ticking-clock feeling of doomed anticipation begins to build by the midway point, as Amy and her boyfriend Blake become a latter day Sid and Nancy after awhile, with the years-long downward spiral all caught on film, mostly against her will.

Predictably—though rightfully—the film is largely an indictment against the tabloid press, and how the relentless cameras and scrutiny can suck the life right out of somebody. In Winehouse’s case, this led to a need to find solace and escape in something. For her, it was drugs and alcohol, which compounded an ongoing eating disorder, and before too long Winehouse became a shell of her former self. The fact that so much of this invasive footage is partially what destroyed her makes the viewer feel almost retroactively complicit in her downfall, and it’s hard to watch without anything but a heavy heart and a longing lingering over the unfortunate proceedings. It’s a portrait that takes on Joycean and Wilde-ean meanings by the end, being both of the Artist as a Young Woman, and, metaphorically, a sort of Dorian Gray.

One of the film’s shortcomings (if you can call it that, given how necessary it ultimately is) is that, by its very nature, it’s almost exclusively made for Amy Winehouse’s fans, and those looking for a by-the-numbers biography will likely find themselves mostly disinterested in the presentation of the material. Perhaps only at first, though. The power it can have on the viewer is a deepening of their understanding of a person with little-to-no editorial flourish, closer to the way a person’s dimensions reveal themselves when you get to know them personally, rather than simply being told their life story. In that way, it’s very close to being something of an abstract autobiography with guest editors. It should do a huge service to her legacy, by providing an empathetic turn for her shallow detractors to have to confront. You see Winehouse as tremendously deep, tremendously talented, and tremendously flawed, not simply a tabloid figure with a few radio hits. Kapadia’s film will likely go down as the most important document in the Amy Winehouse story, and the one she deserves, as it allows for an unfiltered look at what made her indispensable, and what made her disappear.

Amy is now available to rent or own from A24

About the Author:

Jared studied Film at Eastern Michigan University, the movie store and movie theater he used to work at, on his own, and with friends. He is also a playwright, screenwriter, director, and short story writer. His work has previously appeared on two other websites: The Man in the Movie Hat and The Hive, and his feature film 'Footlights' can be found on YouTube (for free!). He lives, works, reads, walks his dog, and watches sports in Detroit.
Filed in: Video and DVD

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