(2015) Musical Documentary (A24) Amy Winehouse, Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), Tony Bennett, Mitchell Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil, Juliette Ashby, Nick Shymansky, Lauren Gilbert, Salaam Remi, Sam Beste, Andrew Morris, Mark Ronson, Pete Doherty, Blake Wood, Janis Winehouse, Raye Cosbert, Guy Moot, Darcus Beese, Tyler James, Monte Lipman. Directed by Asif Kapadia
The music industry is a harsh, unforgiving world. It chews people up and spits them back out, rarely unscathed. Even those who reach the grail of commercial success don’t go untouched.
Amy Winehouse was a little girl with a big voice, singing with Britain’s National Youth Jazz Orchestra. We see her as a teen, singing happy birthday to and with her friends Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert. A Jewish girl from working class London, Amy’s parents divorced when she was quite young.
She began writing songs in which she exorcised her demons. Deeply personal, her music was all about what was going on in her life at that particular moment. She preferred to work in a jazz idiom but her music would eventually turn more pop and once her song “Rehab” hit it big, there would be no stopping her. Except that the Back to Black album that her hit came from would be the last album she’d ever record.
Her brash personality hid a very fragile girl who was surrounded both by people who looked out for her – her friends Ashby and Gilbert, as well as Nick Shymansky, her first manager – and people who didn’t have her best interests at heart.
In fact, some of those around her were actually like poison to her, in particular her husband Blake Fielder-Civil who she was head over heels over, but who led her down a path that included addiction to hard drugs and binge eating and drinking (Winehouse suffered from bulimia dating back to her teenage days). Fielder-Civil comes off absolutely horribly in the movie; after doing a stint in jail, he sees video of his wife with another man; he divorces her for infidelity, smugly proclaiming that he was handsome and young, what was he doing with a skank like that? Yes, by that time the effects of her addiction were starting to show. I guess I wanted to take that silly hat he likes to wear and shove it where the sun don’t shine only after smashing that smug expression in. What a pretentious, self-centered waste of human flesh.
Her own father doesn’t come off unscathed. He appears unconcerned about the issues his daughter has, advising her not to go to rehab before the fame set in and seemingly more concerned about his own limelight and the gravy train his daughter provided him. The Winehouse family initially cooperated with the filmmakers, providing plenty of home video footage as well as granting on-camera interviews for the project but eventually rescinded that cooperation when it became clear that the filmmakers were not portraying them in a flattering light. Mitchell Winehouse has gone on to say that the movie doesn’t capture Amy the person very well and dwells overly much on the lurid tabloid events and in that he does have a point.
Truth be told, I was never much a fan of her music; her voice is a bit too brassy for my taste, but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize talent when I hear it. The woman had a true gift, understanding phrasing like few modern singers do. Tony Bennett, with whom she recorded a duet shortly before she died, compared her to Ella Fitzgerald and I would think that he would know a thing or two about it.
Watching her transformation from a vibrant, promising performer into pop superstardom and from there to drug-addled tabloid fodder is simply painful. We see her besieged by paparazzi, flashbulbs going off like mortar explosions around her, blinding the poor woman so that she couldn’t see where she was walking. The tabloid press are drawn to bad boys and girls like the bottom feeders they are, and how horrible must it be to know that they are out there 24/7, awaiting a chance to catch you at your worst – because the people who read that drivel want to believe the worst about you.
At the end of the day, Amy Winehouse had a hand in her own demise – it is absolutely chilling to hear her tell her friend Juliette that the celebration for her Grammy win was “boring without drugs.” At that point, even had you not known what her fate was to be (found dead on July 13, 2011 of alcohol poisoning) you would have known that she was not long for this world. Her voice stilled, her muse gone, one can’t help but wonder what she might have accomplished had she lived.
But then, that’s the nature of the muse. It doesn’t always treat those who are inspired by it kindly. Amy Winehouse was an amazing talent who became the poster child for excess and addiction by the time she reached her mid-20s. She went from the Next Big Thing to the butt of all sorts of jokes and the sad part was that those who should have been watching out for her were instead feeding the flames that were consuming her. This documentary is chilling in that regard but as a cautionary tale, it is one that we have seen many times on the price of success. And it’s a story that is likely to be told again someday with yet another prodigy; that’s the real tragedy.
REASONS TO GO: Heartbreaking. Wonderful archival footage for fans. Even non-fans will appreciate.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the footage of her descent into drug-addled junkie status is hard to watch. Spends more time on the more lurid tabloid aspects of her life than on her music.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language, drug references and usage, and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winehouse is a member of the “27 Club,” a group of rock stars who all died at the age of 27. Other members include Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Was Not Made For This World
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
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