All photos are stills from the film.
Before you commit to watching the two hour documentary on Amy Winehouse, released in theaters today, know what you're getting yourself into. Cut from hours of excurciatingly personal home videos, Amy is a most disturbing glimpse into the complete unraveling of our generation’s most gifted jazz singer. Director Asif Kapadia said in a recent interview with The New York Times that "the whitewashy type film was never going to work." Instead, his chronological barrage of objective facts and footage is unsettling and blunt. This is not another episode of "Behind the Music." We learn that the recalcitrant pop star was bent on self-destruction long before she became famous. There’s little romantic or glamorous about the vision of Amy Winehouse presented in the documentary. She’s not so much a tragic star torn apart by fame as a real person literally starving and drinking herself to death. Consider yourself warned. If that’s not the story you want to hear, you’re better off watching clips on YouTube. This film makes a point to seize you in the same way that Amy’s demons dug their talons into her.
Twenty-seven-year-old Winehouse was found dead in her London home on July 23, 2011. When the autopsy revealed that her blood alcohol was four times the legal limit, the story of her death practically wrote itself. But of course, it’s much more complicated than that. No one wants to blame the deceased for dying, and that’s where this documentary succeeds in particular. The biographer Janet Malcolm once said, "The dead cannot be libeled or slandered. They are without legal recourse." And so the film gently probes the inner circle for answers.
Was it the rotten ex-husband in her hotel room with the crack pipe? The oft incarcerated is the one who introduced her to such things after all. But the film seems more interested in Fielder-Civil as a reflection of Amy’s desire for an ill-fated love than in damning him for what happened to her. Once we learn that her fame-hungry, enabling father repeatedly told the singer not go to rehab in order to further his own delusional music career, he becomes the obvious villain. Amy’s management team is certainly not without fault either in the film, as they willingly admit to overlooking Amy's crippling bulimia and depression for the sake of concert revenue. Shortly before her death, they even carried her body onto a private plane to play a show she insisted against doing. But Kapadia remains objective because each of them end up looking like suspects on their own accord. Amy never leaves the frame; their interviews run as audio over long shots of the troubled visionary becoming more and more famous and increasingly ill.
Amy Winehouse's last performance before her death in July 2011.
By the time she became an international star, Amy’s modern take on classic American jazz had singlehandedly re-introduced scat rhythms and horns into mainstream pop. But her flagrant and admittedly troubled lyrics about toxic love and addiction cut like open wounds. I worshipped that about her. In fact, her grisly ballad “Back to Black” was the first love song to really make sense to me—when a gangly choir TA asked me what song I wanted to perform for a last minute college credit in the summer of 2011, I didn’t even have to think twice.
Just before that performance for a classroom full of theater majors, my friend convinced me to take several shots of Jim Beam in the bathroom because “that’s what Amy would do.” So I did. I coiffed my hair into the saddest, most deflated beehive you’ve ever seen and drew winged tips on my bloodshot eyes. Half way through the song, I forgot the words and froze as the accompanist kept playing those bleating chords over and over again on the piano. Drunk, humiliated, and standing in front of a horrified group of students, I bent my knees to curtsy and make a somewhat graceful exit. Instead, I tripped on my own feet and fell over. The whole experience was a complete disaster.
I thought that I’d repressed this, but I remembered the whole incident frame-by-frame as I sat there cringing in the theater, watching the same thing happen to the very person I had tried to be in that regrettable moment. The irony is extremely bleak. In the documentary, stumbling, intoxicated, and nearly in tears, Winehouse hardly sings a single note before a Serbian crowd boos her off stage at an outdoor festival. Amy Winehouse only recorded two albums, starting with Frank and ending with Back to Black, but the tabloids’ obsession with her personal life played out like a sick, sad movie where we already knew the ending. Her management team as well as her opportunistic and manipulative father forced the helplessly sick singer into the last few years of her life, milking Back to Black like a cash cow.
But this movie wants you to realize that Amy knew her odds were stacked from the beginning. She told you she was trouble, remember? The real tragedy of the film is seeing the way she left so many clues. Even her manager Raye Cosbert recalls how Amy purposefully left a bathroom stall at the recording studio covered in her vomit, as if to say “help me” without ever really having to. That’s part of what makes Amy so difficult to watch: The other villain in the story is the public’s fascination with the spectacle of her decline—the same group who will probably be buying tickets tonsee it play out all over again.
Each person in that advanced screening was looking to tell the story of Amy Winehouse in the most unique and interesting way. The film puts her story up for intellectual property. But I couldn’t move past one disturbing thought: Are we watching because we really care about Amy Winehouse, the talented songwriter, or are we watching because we’re obsessed with the narrative of fame gone awry? It’s a horrible story with a horrible ending that a lot of us in this room are already horribly familiar with, including myself. Our culture’s fascination with self-destructive rockstars is just that: self-destructive. My choice to get fucked up before singing “Back to Black” in front of my class because someone told me that’s what Amy would have done is a perfect example of this. I got nothing out of it except a failing grade and an unshakable feeling of shame-- and at the end of the film, I felt strangely the same.