In the vein of troubled musicians like Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse was a smoldering star burning brighter than the British songstress ever could have imagined. After her smokey, soulful talents were discovered at a young age, Amy Winehouse became yet another budding celebrity who found herself consumed by fame, drugs, habitual abuse, and insurmountable pressures. By the ripe age of 28, Winehouse had experienced more highs and lows than you or I might take a lifetime to collect – a rollercoaster of denial, acceptance, and utter helplessness. Those are the moments documentarian Asif Kapadia set out to capture in his tragically beautiful new exposé, simply titled Amy.
The film is an ode to a devastating musical loss, somberly mourned by the likes of Mos Def, Questlove, and Tony Bennett, but it’s also an alarming glimpse into the celebrity culture that’s destroyed so many eager, ambitious young artists. Sometimes we forget that performers aren’t trained monkeys, and that a human being actually exists under the layers of makeup and flashy concert garb.
Society assumes all celebrities crave worldwide exposure and immense riches, getting their egos off on center-stage attention, but most actually DON’T ask for that. Much like a pervert whose only excuse is “she wouldn’t dress like that if she didn’t want it,” we have no regard for the personal wishes of celebrities because most believe these higher-class citizens love having sleazy paparazzi leeches document every intimate detail of their lives. Could you imagine having every one of your embarrassing attempts at maturation ridiculed by millions of pop-culture slugs? Most celebrities bare the weight of entire populations on their shoulders, and some just aren’t fit to carry the load.
So the question remains: why should they? Despite Amy’s wish to only release music, her beautiful connection with jazz crooning showed the expertise of a generational icon before she could legally drink. After being introduced to showbiz at such a volatile age, early interviews helped establish her distaste for the limelight, in which she explained deeply-rooted desires to be left completely alone so she could focus primarily on writing albums. Fame was a constricting death sentence in her eyes, but unfortunately for Winehouse, she’d continually find herself surrounded by people only focused on her “Winehouse” brand as her iconic status began to take over.
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Kapadia, however, succeeds mightily in connecting with the hidden life of Amy Winehouse through unbiased retellings of the starlet’s influential upbringing. From a young age, it’s easy to see her passion for music was entangled in her own lifeline. Many scenes are often driven by Winehouse’s own lyrics appearing on screen, because she only wrote about the most personal, meaningful, and prominent events in her life. As the songs play on, Winehouse’s albums form a haunting overture to her own jaded story.
We care for Winehouse as an honest, expressive soul, but more so as a fragile, scared child, reaching out for any sense of relief. In one particular scene where Amy is preparing for a telecasted Grammy performance, she reverts to that starry-eyed little girl just upon hearing Tony Bennett announce her name as a Grammy winner. Seeing Amy happy, healthy, and clean has a magical effect in the way of heartwarming elation, even though these clarifying moments become sadder as her death creeps closer.
More importantly, Amy takes us into the broken Winehouse home through dusted-off video clips, and we begin to understand the devastation that molded Amy Winehouse in her earliest stages. From a mother who provided no stability, to a father who fled her life at the age of nine only to reappear once fame set in, it becomes easy to notice where an emotional emptiness began to grow inside Amy Winehouse. The alarming lyrics in “Rehab” even tell of her father’s belief that professional help wasn’t necessary to curb her destructive habits, which coincided with his constant attempts to always keep her focused on work (aka dollar signs). Even when Amy attempted to flee the public by seeking refuge on a tropical island for six months, her father, Mitchell Winehouse, followed with a camera crew, recording his brand spankin’ new reality show – about Amy’s success.
Putting Amy’s career ahead of her own livelihood, Mitchel Winehouse might be Earth’s most repugnant bastard, and 2015’s greatest cinematic villain. We all watch these wasteful TLC shows about pageant moms and sports dads, but Mitchel literally witnessed his daughter’s slow decay from the front row, and all he cared about was her next gig. He’s Mama June meets the anti-christ, and we can only watch in horror as Amy continually stumbles under her misguided father’s care. It’s this kind of heartbreak that makes Amy such a powerful experience, as Kapadia doesn’t have to spin any details to paint a more sobering picture than Winehouse’s bleak reality.
Adding to the pool of emotionally abusive men in Amy’s life is Blake Fielder, a remorseless thug who stole Amy’s heart at a young age, and never gave it back. He injected his poison directly into Winehouse’s veins, both emotionally and physically in the form of heroin, which marked the singer’s chaotic downward spiral into complete self-obliteration. Their love burned strong, but so did his passion for hard, deadly drugs, a world which Amy sunk into thanks to Fielder’s sick, constricting obsession.
Amy is a monument erected for a mere girl who left this world far too soon, but also stands as a poignant warning for the up-and-coming talents of today. When Amy Winehouse was first discovered, her cheeks were full and her personality was bursting with life. In her last days, she had wasted away to skin and bones, after a lifetime of drugs and constant media attention rotted her from the inside out. We laugh when comedians like Jay Leno make pop-culture references about struggling celebrities, yet when Kapadia splices the comments in with Amy’s behind-the-scenes footage, these “funny quips” sting like daggers. Here’s Amy Winehouse, a lost child in a world full of snakes, being mocked for an abusive addiction problem perpetuated by the public eye.
Imagine if that was your daughter, or if YOUR questionable twenty-something decisions were dissected by all, and you were repeatedly forced to endure that ridicule. I’m not saying Winehouse’s fate wasn’t a two-way street, but like any good documentary, Amy makes you think long and hard about the darkness of our society. The tears we shed aren’t only for Amy Winehouse, but the soul-sucking inevitability her situation created. And trust me, you will shed tears when Winehouse’s lyrics all but predict her own heartbreaking fate.
You can't help but wonder how many more powerful documentaries like Amy will come about before society changes for the better, but here we are, yet again mourning a loss at the hand of the poisonous celebrity culture.