Amy: A Muddled and Manipulative Look at Amy Winehouse

AMY (2015)
Directed by Asif Kapadia
Universal Music, 128 minutes, R (language, drug use, alcoholism)
* *

Wasted life/wasted film
There’s an adage about a train wreck that goes, “It was so horrible I couldn’t stop looking.” The documentary Amy recounts the tragic train wreck life of British jazz/pop star Amy Winehouse (1983-2011). It proves the adage wrong—you stop looking when you stop caring and, for me, that happened early in a film I found dull, manipulative, and dishonest.

Winehouse is a member of the 27 Club, the musicians’ variant of the Icarus myth. Other dead-at-27 bottle rockets include: Robert Johnson, Pigpen McKernan, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain. There are also honorary members who managed to squeak past 27, like Charlie Parker (34) and Tim Buckley (28). You don’t need a Ph.D. in psychology to understand why the late twenties are dangerous for celebrities; it’s the period of life when you’re supposed to fly on your own and people stop making excuses for you. In “Morning Glory,” Tim Buckley referred to fame as a “fleeting house,” and if you’re famous and still wrestling with demons as thirty approaches, there are only three possible outcomes: you get lucky and don't keel over until middle or old age (Billie Holiday, Jerry Garcia), you get sober and write a tell-all autobiography (Keith Richards, Pete Townshend), or you flame out.

Would that director Asif Kapadia acknowledge that. Can you imagine a Janis Joplin documentary that portrayed her as a shrinking violet? Her pre-death biography parallels that of Winehouse (though Joplin was smarter), yet even those devastated by Joplin’s death agree that Janis fed her demons more than she battled them. By contrast, Kapadia wants us to see Winehouse as the British Judy Garland—an innocent pushed forward too early, manipulated by others, and ignored by those who should have intervened. There’s some truth to that, but also lots of hogwash. She was 19 when she went professional, recorded her first album when she was 20, and began touring heavily at 21. That’s young, but Garland was on stage at age 2 ½ and a reluctant professional at 7. Kapadia does show Winehouse behaving badly, but the overall portrait is that she was a misunderstood naïf who was an easy mark for others.

I agree—to a point. One of the film’s strengths is its look at heartlessness inside fame’s fleeing house. The images of Winehouse disappearing amidst the glare of camera flashes wielded by stalker paparazzi are horrifying. They infer that hulkish bodyguard Andrew Morris was either totally inept or just collecting a paycheck, and we suspect the latter of Winehouse’s manager Raye Coshart and producer Salaami Remi, both of whom observed Winehouse’s descent—one literally etched in an ever-expanding array of tattoos upon her bulimic body—but were more invested in advancing her career than saving her life. The worst bastard was her father, Mitch, who busily reinvents himself whilst vicariously basking in his daughter’s instant fame.

My vote for the film’s creepiest character goes to ex-husband Blake Fielder, though his presence shows the wobbliness of the myth that Kapadia tries to build. Fielder was a horrible match for Winehouse, but she pursued him with a steely determination bordering on obsession. Like (too) many women who make foolish choices, she was attracted to the allure of Bad Boy, foolishly thought she could domesticate him, and got burnt. Then again, she wasn’t a particularly likable person herself, as her first manager and two closest childhood friends determined when they pulled back from her. They knew–as anyone who has been around an addict knows–that it’s pointless to trust a junkie and drunk. Winehouse, after all, infamously sang, “They tried to make me go to rehab but I said, “No, no, no!”

If you don't get blindsided by the fame (including six Grammys in 2008), you come to see Amy Winehouse as an attitude-laden brat just a cut above the blood-sucking paparazzi and cash-cow milkers that surrounded her. At that point, the viewer experiences the ennui one might of watching a prima donna take a temper tantrum. Had I not been with others, I would have exited this dud halfway through. As it turns out, many in the theater that night (around 75) felt the same way. If you’re inclined to skip this one, here are observations that are closer to reality:

·      Winehouse was an unbelievably gifted jazz singer, but…
·      Some of her gifts were exaggerated. With just a few exceptions, she was a pretty bad songwriter in the June/spoon/moon tradition of poetry.
·      Her contributions were magnified by death. Though she won awards, she made just two albums in a career whose glory years spanned just 2004-08. By 2009, she was already spiraling downward. Her final years were marked by sparks of genius and forest fires of controversy.
·      Her death was pointless and tragic.
·      Others exploited Amy, but she was often a willing victim.

Speaking of exploitation, please note the irony of a documentary that’s a filmed in the style of the tabloid journalism we are supposed to see as having sucked out Amy’s life and soul. Kapadia’s movie is almost entirely cobbled from footage shot by paparazzi and from interviews with those we hold complicit in her demise. His film is (unintentionally) useful as a takedown of celebrity culture, but here’s the other thing about the 27 Club: there ain’t a saint among them. How do you decline membership in the Club? Contrast Amy Winehouse with Madonna and Lady Gaga, each of whom has used the Music Industry Machine on their own terms. (By the way, all three women have sung with Tony Bennett!) As for the documentary Amy, my advice for this train wreck comes courtesy of “Dixie”: look away.
Rob Weir

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