I remember the first time I heard Amy Winehouse. I was at a listening booth in a Borders Books & Music — remember those? I’m fuzzy on what made me listen to this CD called Back to Black, but I do recall what impression the title track made on me. The cavernous Phil Spector-like sound, the Motown horns, the bouncy rhythms, the air of doom and despair in the lyrics, and splashed across it all was that voice, nasal, hardened, world-weary, defiant, proud, and unforgettable. I heard that and thought, “Well, who’s this now?” Over the ensuing years, I watched along with everybody else as the British singer turned into the emaciated, drug-addled wreck that inspired jokes by lots of people who forgot that there was an actual human being inside all of that. This week, four years after her death from alcohol poisoning at age 27, a new documentary called Amy appears in our theaters to show us who that person was.
The film is directed by Asif Kapadia, who grew up in North London, just a few miles from Winehouse’s neighborhood. He previously made Senna, a terrific documentary about the short-lived Brazilian auto racing legend Ayrton Senna. As he did in that film, here he eschews the talking-heads approach in favor of using the voices of his interviewees over extensive video footage taken during the subject’s life. We see concerts, rehearsals, press conferences, interviews, and home movies of a teenaged Amy provided by her manager Nick Shymansky. Her songs are accompanied by lyrics appearing onscreen in an appropriately retro font, and occasionally by shots of pages where Winehouse wrote her lyrics in her schoolgirl handwriting, allowing us to see where she changed words. We also see her doodles in the margins, which include chord notations and alternate rhymes.
The approach yields things like her waiting raptly at a London performance venue during the 2008 Grammy Awards before she wins the award for Record of the Year, curling her lip into a sneer when fellow nominee Justin Timberlake’s name is read off and gazing raptly at the award presenters. (“It’s Tony Bennett!” she exclaims, starstruck.) The singer displays a wicked sense of humor, picking her teeth from boredom in response to a journalist’s droning question that compares her to Dido. The camera is with her in the recording booth as she records the vocals on “Back to Black,” and immediately after she sings the song’s mournful last words, she wisecracks, “Oh, it’s a bit upsetting at the end, innit?” That wit made it easy for other people to slag off her personal problems, which we can see cropping up well before she becomes famous. Giving a tour of her hotel suite in Spain, she puts on a funny accent as she points to a towel hook in the bathroom and says, “This is the hook that I hang from when I feel depressed.”
Her problems with depression and bulimia showed themselves well before she became famous, but fame created the worst possible environment for her to deal with them. Not least, it brought her father Mitch back into her life after he had walked out. The older Winehouse cooperated with the film but is now reportedly unhappy at the way he’s been depicted, and well he might be. He comes off as an enabler and a leech who brings a reality TV crew to an island where Amy is trying to convalesce after a stretch in rehab. Even worse is Amy’s husband Blake Fielder-Civil, who appears a right bastard, never more so than in a TV interview after his divorce from her and his own stint in rehab, where he smirks at the camera and declares, “I’m free, and I can fuck whoever I want!”
I wish Kapadia had gone deeper into the particulars of the media coverage around Amy and the sick fascination our culture seems to take in female celebrities who crash and burn. Still, we get honest tributes from fellow musicians like Bennett, yasiin bey, and Mark Ronson, as well as the testimony of those close to Winehouse, like her Caribbean-accented security guard Andrew Morris, which are enlightening without being exploitive. Saddest of all is the anecdote related by Winehouse’s lifelong friend Juliette Ashby, who got pulled up on stage to celebrate with her after she won that Grammy. In the middle of it all, the singer turned to her and said, “Jules, this is all so boring without drugs.”
The vacant-eyed non-performances from her later years are tough to sit through, but they’re worth it for moments like her thrilling duet with Bennett, “Body and Soul.” Amy Winehouse made magnificent music, but the same impulses that drove her to create it also destroyed her. There’s an overused word that nevertheless applies to her life and this film: tragic.
Starring Amy Winehouse. Directed by Asif Kapadia. Rated R.[/box_info]