Amy Winehouse wasn’t an attention-craving junkie. She was a vibrant soul waiting to be saved by those she loved.
The unabridged depth and astute clarity Asif Kapadia delivers in Amy, his new documentary on the iconic singer-songwriter, elevates it beyond the glories of critical praise and into the field of longevity known as reflection. AKA be ready to cry.
Before the beehive hair and permanent inebriation came a jazz-driven girl guided completely by music. For most, this is the first time they’ve seen Winehouse as more than a laconic drunk on the cover of US Weekly, and frankly, these 128 minutes are too short. Amy packs more interviews with associates than it does archival footage with the star herself, but those friends, peers, and family members reshape the idea of Winehouse as a coloring book available for onlookers to shade in ways the media reaffirmed were correct.
She wasn’t emptying cups and stumbling down the sidewalk in hopes of making headlines. She was depressed. When looking for help from boyfriend Blake Fielder-Civil and her father, Mitch Winehouse, she was pulled away from rehab and, in a few months time, directly given more heroin and cocaine by Fielder-Civil. When someone’s luxuries ride on your talent, help won’t come if it means cutting access to easy milking.
For Fielder-Civil, that meant freebies. We see him time and time again racking up her bill at the bar and then asking her to pay for it. She leaves slurred messages on friends’ answering machines while with him. He routinely pulls her out of engagements. He drags her to the side at a photoshoot. He’s there making out with her before she’s supposed to go onstage. When she’s heartbroken, though, he’s missing. Fielder-Civil was the usual boyfriend that distracts — until heroin came into the mix. Romantic addiction is real, but hard drug addiction is even moreso.
As for her father, it was about fame. Throughout the film, we see him egging on camera crews and nudging her to do more live shows. While her mother was, for the most part, caring (despite swatting away her struggle with bulimia from her mid-teens onwards, attributing it to nervousness.), her father was busy looking at his reflection in the camera lens. Even after one of her massive emotional crashes, he invites a crew to follow them to the remote island where she and her close family and friends seek refuge to restore their (ie: her) health. Pain permeates thru her tired eyes as she yells at her dad when a traveling couple asks for a photo with her. This isn’t about her. It’s about him. But she lets it happen. Winehouse was a child waiting to be scolded, seeing how far she can go before someone finally puts her in the corner.
She wasn’t without a lifeguard. Nick Shymansky, her first manager and early teenage friend, stuck by her side for the majority of her rise to fame. Now, and for every year that follows, he’s taunted by his efforts to get her help. After teaming up with a few concerned friends to get her to enter rehab, she was pulled out thanks to her father. He belittled the group’s efforts, deciding against it and, ultimately, giving her the step-by-step plot for her biggest hit, “Rehab”. Hearing it on the radio, half of the time being sung by people with a glass of wine in the other hand, tourmented him after she replaced him with another manager. Shymansky tried to save Winehouse. Her father prevented that from happening.
The very fame we projected on her as a society never fit her well. The only moments at which Winehouse shows genuine enthusiasm are those where she is offered the chance to work with high-profile musicians. Before entering the studio with Tony Bennett for a duet, she chugs a bottle of water, nervously twisting her hands. Gathered around a microphone, the two begin to sing, taking turns. In a matter of seconds, Winehouse cuts herself off. “I’m sorry. That was awful. I’m no good,” she says, batting away her notes like clouds of smoke. Stress buzzes from her skull. Seeing someone get so nervous about singing with one of their idols and feeling so out of place next to them, so genuinely unaware of her talent, is dumbfounding. How can she not see? Why does she attempt to back out of the recording? Above all else, how is she still this innocent? There’s no overflowing confidence or arrogance or flippance — all attributes stitched to her name on gossip magazines. It’s childish idolization for a dream coming true and nerves telling her she doesn’t deserve to be there.
We see it routinely throughout the film: Amy Winehouse was, to some degree, continually unaware of how monstrous her voice was.
There’s a hundred buried facts that come to light over the course of the film. Winehouse was rather funny. She played guitar for years. Part of her pouty accent comes from wearing braces for so long. She’s a fully-realized character that was never portrayed as her 3D self in the tabloids. That delivery of overlooked facts gives Amy its heart.
It’s almost humorous that Winehouse only had two albums. The Grammy-adorned Back to Black from 2006 was a follow-up to the perfect combination of R&B and jazz on Frank, her 2003 debut LP. That’s it. A voice that huge never got the chance to sing notes other than those. Five years of live albums and useless milking of past material up until her death in 2011 let that soul grow thirsty, frail, and weak.
No matter which performance of hers remains closest to your heart—the studio-perfected bass of “You Know I’m No Good” or the mascara-smeared flair of her Glastonbury set—Amy will reset your appreciation of her work and, more importantly, of her as a person. You will re-listen to Back to Black in awe. You will revisit every acoustic session, every TV appearance, every full concert. In observing Amy Winehouse’s death from a new vantage point, you will scramble to bring her back to life. This much is certain. But tragic as it is, the glamor of her addiction will likely outshine her voice for many, failing to resolve the gendered martyrdom we can’t seem to rise above and ultimately pushing the young woman she was—immensely talented and wholly unaware of it—out of our minds. Amy reminds us we can’t let that happen.
AMY. RATED R. OPENS EVERYWHERE FRI 7.10.