Wrapping up 2015: Amy
I figure I’ll give myself until the end of February (the end of the new release graveyard, basically) to keep posting reviews of last year’s films. Until then, there are still some terrific movies that need seeing. Amy is one of them.
Asif Kapadia’s documentary Amy opens with home video footage of a 14-year-old Amy Winehouse singing “Happy Birthday” to a friend. Her voice is startling: rich, beautiful, and robust. I imagine any music producer hearing this snippet would clamor to find out more about this girl. Then something far more grim struck me: at 14, Amy Winehouse was more than halfway to her death. Never deviating from footage (much of it home video shot by Winehouse and her friends) Kapadia builds a narrative from this moment, when Winehouse was so full of promise, to the realization of that promise as she catapulted to superstardom, and finally her self-destruction and death at age 27 from alcohol poisoning.
I remember well when Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” was all the rage. I was a sophomore in college, immersing myself in music for the first time as I took jazz vocal lessons and sang with musical ensembles. Her ascent coincided with my first deep appreciation of music. “Rehab” was my favorite song for some time. I wasn’t alone. It was so catchy and energetic that it overtook any room in which it was played. Everyone in the room had no choice but to stop and listen. My younger sister, however, couldn’t listen to the song. It was too bleak for her. She saw through the veneer of defiant buoyancy and saw underneath a song about self-aware self-destruction laid bare for the world to see. In hindsight, I think she was right. Today it’s hard not to see “Rehab” as a confession from someone who was not long for the world.
Celebrity documentaries are a tricky business. It’s easy to fall into the trap of hagiography, spouting platitudes and downplaying the subject’s life off the stage. Go too far the other way, and you run the risk of seeming disingenuous: stardom and the price of fame is an inescapable aspect of any superstar’s life story. Kapadia’s great achievement with Amy is finding balance. Every frame of the movie is about Amy Winehouse. Voiceovers are kept to the soundtrack; there are no cuts to talking heads. We get the sense of the flow of a lifetime. It’s devastating that that lifetime can be covered in only 2 hours.
There are always limits to how thoroughly a documentary can examine its subject. If you simply recite a glut of facts, you don’t end up with a watchable movie, and you don’t do the story justice. Amy makes no attempt to be a “tell all”. Its aims are clear. Odds are, you know Amy Winehouse as a musician who skyrocketed to fame, became tabloid fodder, and died young. In interviewing her friends, family, and closest colleagues, Kapadia aims to have us empathize with someone we likely hadn’t before. There are no justifications of Amy Winehouse’s self-destructive behavior. But it’s one part of a person. Winehouse’s surge to fame feels like a suffocating blanket. She seems woefully unprepared to handle the burden of it. Shots of paparazzi swarming her with flashbulbs feel like a horror film. Her collapse into bulimia, drug addiction, and alcoholism was covered with intense glee by the entertainment press. I felt stings of guilt as footage that I no doubt once gawked at and forgot now seemed like a harbinger. When a standup comedian mocks Winehouse’s haggard appearance near the end of her life, it’s crushing, not just for the callousness of the words, but because odds are we probably found it funny at the time.
As I wrote before Amy is not a hagiography. It is a reminder of how easily we dehumanize other people, even as we admire their talent. When Winehouse died, that too was what we paid lip service to. “Such talent, wasted,” is the go-to sentiment when an artist dies too soon. And then we move on. We reserve our deep sympathies. We compartmentalize. It’s easy to forget that everyone has a story worth telling, worth knowing. Even if you know nothing of Amy Winehouse, I imagine you would still find Amy to be compelling and terribly sad. It’s all too human a story. Some people are blessed with extraordinary artistic abilities. Some people die young, under tragic circumstances. Too often, they are the same person.