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.