In today's musical climate with a dozen "songwriters" on a single track, microwaved pop stars and “singers” lip-synching for their life, Amy Winehouse is still one of the most unforgettable artists of the past decade. In songs like "Back to Black" and "Rehab" the North London native truly lived her music. That said, after seeing Amy, the documentary directed by Asif Kapadia, maybe constructed pop stars are better off than artists who are "living" their music. Can you create art that dives into such despair and not become a casualty? From 2Pac to Biggie, Janis Joplin to Jimi Hendrix, they all predicted their own tragic ends, as did Amy. In one of the many ominous lines from the film, Winehouse says about fame, "I don’t think I could handle it. I would probably go mad."
With elegance and a bit of grit, Kapadia skillfully tells the jazz singer's journey through her narrative. There are no "expert opinions,” we only hear the voices of family and friends and never see their faces unless they appear in archival footage. Kapadia allowed Amy to speak through the lens. You felt her humor, passion and pain, making the documentary a haunting movie-going experience.
Unlike docs on Kurt Cobain or Bob Marley, this is one of the first music docs to chronicle a life of a star who rose to fame during the era of blogs, social media and 24-hour news. Amy Winehouse was brutalized by the media: she was coined "Amy Crackhouse," shamed for her weight issues and mocked for her addictions. Amy is arguably the first celebrity to be bullied to death by social media. There are deeply disturbing scenes of a zombie-like Winehouse stumbling through London as hungry paps snap photos of her like an animal in the zoo. Amy is not just a story about a great musician, but it's a layered dissection of fame in the 21st century. Kapadia turned the mirror on the audience, posing the question: Were page views and ratings worth it at the cost of destroying a vulnerable woman who clearly had the disease of addiction?
Many scenes are difficult to watch, the abuse of drugs plays out like a horror film. When Amy wins big at the Grammys, she reveals to her best friend the win is "so boring without drugs." Her ex-husband, Blake Fielder, giving her heroine when she was in the hospital after an overdose. Her management pushing her on stage when she was incapable of performing. But the most violent aspect of Amy’s life appeared to be the fishbowl of fame. Not everyone is built for the bright lights.
We lost Amy four years ago next month. In 27 years, she, for better or for worse, became the jazz singers she worshiped, like Billie Holiday or Dinah Washington, both of whom died tragically but whose talent cannot be denied, just like Winehouse. The movie is a respectful homage to the late, great jazz diva and, thus far, the best documentary of 2015.
(Photo: Krishwerkz Entertainment / Playmaker Films / Universal Music)