A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Amy” 7.11.15

In what was yet another example of a documentary I walked into with a total clean slate. Having totally been shut myself off from anything deemed “popular music” for the past 15 years or so (a rather deliberate move on my part) I knew little to next to nothing about this new film about the life, work, and career of the late Amy Winehouse. The very little I did know was that she became popular in the early to mid-2000’s, had her fair share of trouble with bouts of drugs and alcohol, and was yet another in a long string of famous musicians who passed away tragically of a substance abuse related death at the tender ripe young age of 27. That and it was directed by the British documentarian Asif Kapadia, whose last documentary about the Brazilian Formula One racing driver Ayrton Senna, was one of my favorite documentaries of 2010. Lastly, I love all kinds of music, even despite my comment about popular music, and like most people I have a curious fascination for beloved artists who die tragically young. Mostly because I’m interested in exploring one main central idea – “but why”?

The film opens with one of many fly on the wall, home movies, of a young Amy, singing at the birthday party for one of her friends. It’s one of many intimate scenes layered throughout where the fillmmaker shows archival footage of Ms. Winehouse singing, writing, and recording music. But I’ll go on to talk about that a bit more later. We then follow Amy as she begins to seriously pursue a career in music. Which at about 16 years of age she started rather young. As she begins to get discovered by serious record labels, there’s a pivotal scene which was one of my favorites as it shows a young Amy, 18 at the time, playing impromptu with just a guitar in front of some major label players, and the whole room (including probably everyone in the theater) is just absolutely blown away by her level of talent. One of the spectators sums it up perfectly – “if she sounds this good at 18, could you possibly only imagine what she’ll sound like at 25”. She attains commercial success through her debut album – 2003’s “Frank” which was when she really started to become recognized by the industry at large.Though still kept as sort of a soon to be discovered secret just waiting to take off. it’s during this period that she gets involved in a serious relationship. One of which would involve a man she would fall madly in love with her only to unexpectedly pick up and leave her. This seems to act as major turning point in the film, as she starts to develop a pretty serious dependency with alcohol. her friends, colleagues, and family take notice. And while everyone is pointing towards rehab, the young Winehouse takes her dad’s advice and chooses not to go (which she would go on to write one of her most famous songs about this experience – “Rehab”). Then, three years later at just 21 years of age, she would release the #1 album of the 21st century (so far) 2006’s “Back to Black” which brought her to new heights of international acclaim and worldwide celebrity. Winehouse talks openly and rather candidly in a series of interviews both before and after she reaches this level of success about how she feels about fame, fortune, and her music. As her fame continues to grow and grow and grow, her personal life dismantles and her drinking increases along with being diagnosed as having bulimia. Ultimately and tragically, she succumbs to her own personal demons and well, you know the rest of the story.

“Amy” winds up being one of the most compelling, fascinating, and utterly devastating documentaries that I’ve personally seen of almost any artist this year (one of the members of my meetup.com group called it “the best documentary that he’s ever seen”). This in year where so far, we’ve gotten documentaries about Kurt Cobain (“Montage of Heck”) and Elliott Smith (“Heaven Adores You”). What was different and so interesting about this particularly documentary comparatively speaking in relation to those two. Was the brilliant treatment of the story. As was it one of the most well assembled and constructed documentaries I’ve seen in a long time. Which really speaks to Kapadia as a filmmaker and documentarian. He does a masterful job at creating a comprehensive look at the entire life of an artist, from beginning to end, without following any sort of documentary tropes in nothing in it felt one-sided (one of my major criticisms of the art form itself – take any film by Michael Moore for example). It doesn’t seem to have any sort of “agenda” other than to present the audience with the events that transpired in her life. Another thing worth pointing out was the amazing footage they were able to acquire (apparently it was assembled from over 100 hours of footage). As someone who looks at the advent of technology as the downfall of the human race. I couldn’t help but think here how much would have been lost without it, as much of the film is shown through a series of home movies and interviews that were captured and recorded by whatever the newest technology that was out at the time. So for that I was grateful to be allowed such unprecedented access to Winehouse’s life story. And while although a major part of Winehouse’s story is about her bouts with substance abuse, like the Elliott Smith documentary, it does a great job acknowledging how self destructive it can be. But instead of turning it into some cautionary tale of the horrors of addiction. It simply shows this as simply being “was what it was”. Instead choosing to focus on the music as its focal point. Amy Winehouse was and is without one of if not the greatest singer-songwriters of the post-2000 generation. And even though she died far too young, she left behind a legacy that will continue to influence generations of artists to come.

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This Weekend’s Meetup! “Amy” – Sat, 7/11 at 4pm (3:30-3:45 Out Front) at Cin 21

Saturday, Jul 11, 2015, 4:00 PM

Cinema 21
616 NW 21st Ave Portland, OR

8 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

This weekend marks the Portland release date of the new documentary about the career, life, and work of the late singer Amy Winehouse. Opening to incredible praise and positive reviews across the board. This seems like it’s going to be one not to miss! We will meet under the Cinema 21 marquee at 3:30 sharp (though I will wait until 15 mins before s…

Check out this Meetup →

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A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Heaven Adores You” 5.10.15

“Heaven Adores You” is a documentary about the late musician Elliott Smith, whose rise to fame and fortune ended abruptly when he died of an apparent suicide by self-inflicted stab wounds (whose case still remains open as the evidence was inconclusive) in 2003 at the tender ripe young age of 34. Funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign back in 2011, after 4 long years in gestation, the film has finally been given a proper release. It’s the first documentary ever made of an artist whose work has not only had such a tremendous influence on me but legions of other fans both stateside and internationally as he rose from the indie scene of the early 90’s to worldwide fame towards the end of the decade, become arguably one of the greatest singer/songwriters of his generation. Through a series of interviews of close friends, family, and various other industry types, the film paints a probing portrait into a man whose music left a long-lasting imprint and whose music is still unquestionably influential on the industry a little over a decade after his death.

The film begins with an opening shot of Smith in a white suit performing onstage at the 70th Academy Awards in 1998 with his song “Miss Misery”, which was nominated for Best Original Song in Gus Van Sant’s “Good Will Hunting” (1997). Through a series of radio interviews, Smith candidly talks about what this experience was like for him. Not only did it bring him international acclaim to someone at that point only recognized in the States, but it catapulted his career to a whole new platform in the music industry. The story then flashes back to Smith’s upbringing, born and raised in Dallas, TX, with his childhood looking like a seemingly fairly normal one. Smith shows a very early interest in the guitar, and begins writing and playing his own music at the age of 13. By 14, Smith had ditched what he called the “mundane” way of living in the suburbs of Dallas to Portland, OR, a city that had one of the most thriving music scenes in the country during this time and became the epicenter for the kind of music that Smith’s early career’s musical pursuits catered to. It depicts his early rise in the Portland music scene with his post-punk outfit Heatmiser, a band who after just two years he would leave to focus on his own music as a solo artist. It then shift gears a bit and focuses on Smith’s rise to fame as a solo artist and where he was at each point musically in the albums he would put out from the mid 90’s to the early 2000’s. With much attention to detail on his creative process, to his love life and relationships which he would touch on in his work (“Hey You”), his move from Portland to New York City (one that he says had more to do because of a failed relationship and his break from Heatmiser). A tough move as Portland viewed him as a staple of their music scene at the time and whose fans purchased 70% of his music, the other 30% spread out over ever other city in the U.S. To his reluctant move to Los Angeles. At which time he developed a very serious drug problem while battling what seemed like some pretty serious inner demons, something he would never get over and eventually succumb to and pass away from.

This was a remarkable tribute to the life and work of Smith which was both insightful and utterly fascinating. As someone who considers themselves well versed about his life I thought it shed light on a number of things about him, not only as an artist but a person, that I never would have known had it not been for this film. Another misconception that the film touches on is that Smith’s songs weren’t really about himself at all although many people thought they were. According to Smith, the tragic characters in which he sang about in his songs were merely “archetypes” (as he refers to them as). I also liked how they focused a lot of attention on the Oscar nomination and what impact this had on him. Smith talks about the experience as a rather surprisingly humbling one. And in the process of doing so, shows a side of his sense of humor. He says he mostly took everything in stride, and realized that despite the attention, he was still a small fish in a big pond. I found myself laughing out loud when he talks about the fact that the Oscar organizers didn’t want him to walk the ride carpet. But he chose to do so instead, only to go unnoticed as he coincidentally showed up at the same time as Madonna. The ones closest to him talk about the fact that while although from the outside he seemed to not like the experience or the accolades he was given, on the inside he truly felt a sense that he had finally made it which brought him a new found confidence that he had never had up to that point. I thought this portion of the film was nicely well done. As was its inevitable conclusion, where Smith starts using heroin and begins to delve into the dark side. I had always thought Smith was a long time drug user, but it really wasn’t until around the time that he hit 30, a mere 3 years before his death, that he started to using drugs. It’s unflinching in its depiction of the last chapter of his life, and isn’t overly sympathetic which I thought was a brilliant decision on its part is it easily could have fallen into a melodramatic, “heroin is bad” anti drug movie. They simply leave it at “it was what it was”. He just got deeply immersed in a lifestyle that would ultimately be his demise. The films ends on a rather poignant note, with moving footage of tributes that were done in his honor in 2013, a decade after his death. This was an extremely well done, comprehensive and deeply affecting look at one of my favorite artists who left us far too early. By the end there wasn’t a dry eye in the house and it was met by a seated ovation from just about everyone in the theater. This wound up being one of the greatest testaments of an artist whose influence and legacy will live on to inspire decades to come.

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