“Love,” Amy Winehouse says, “is like a drug.” There is the underlying theme in Amy, in What Happened Miss Simone?, and in Listen to Me, Marlon, of being able to survive one’s great talent, and being able to trust and love.
This reviewer has the same birthday as Amy Winehouse, though unlike Amy, I am not a natural genius at jazz singing. Still, I wondered how I might identify with Winehouse. I found I related to her honesty in the songs she wrote, and her desire for certain love. Her relentless battle with herself as an addict was the thing that took her down. “Amy,” is a doozy of a documentary that escalates chronologically with the ascent and descent of one beautifully talented star on the rise who bursts before she can get grounded. Her life literally burns out, but what a shooting star she is along the way, cheeky, street-smart, and dazzling, if fairly obnoxious about her drug use.
The film is composed of so much paparazzi material that one gets the same strobe-like effect that she must have. Her twists and turns on and off drugs and alcohol just as she was becoming a Grammy winning pop star made me feel woozy and shipwrecked. Winehouse covers up her pain with drugs and alcohol, and then gets real and tells it like it is, personally, in her songs-which only made her more famous. What documentaries are great at showing, are essential contradictions in character, breaks and cracks that one cannot patch up. It is up to the character, the performer, the person, to be reached, to help themselves, and it is finally when they fail that it is so heartbreaking to witness. The archival footage puts Winehouse close to us, unforgettably so, a big voice with a big face, and a big heart, though compromised to self-sabotage and self-destruction by bulimia and addiction. Winehouse clearly needed an escape hatch, and though she achieved so much as an artist, she never seemed to gain the grounding she needed earlier in her life. Her heart bore her out until it could buoy her no longer. Unbearably sad, this documentary brings it all to life, from her early beginnings, with all the people she was close to, with a husband that would become the black key to her Grammy success, and the stake in her downfallen heart. As a woman you would have hoped she would gather strength from other women, her friends, but once she steps into addiction, she doesn’t have the support of those same friends. Her final days come down to contact with two early childhood friends, who stuck by her when clean, and a bodyguard. Everyone else just wanted a mug shot of sorts, camera flashes to her eyelashes, including her father. Winehouse spoke to not understanding why she couldn’t get pregnant or have her period, things that when watching, one wishes it had been clearer to her, that the drugs and the stress would impact her hormones to such a degree. Especially when someone is so much watched, so hounded, it is astounding to see how a powerhouse musician like Amy Winehouse can slip away.
We are left with her powerful voice, which sang with Tony Bennett, and the voice lives on. In one scene, Winehouse holds the microphone in front of her throat, her voicebox, waving it around there, as if a gesture of warming it up. Probably nothing, but she points to the magic right there, the treasure of Winehouse. If only we could be listening to that next album. Somewhere along the line, she blurred her belief in herself with her addiction. Amy is a haunting encapsulation of a great young talent who sings big, and yet can’t find the balance point of that delicate line, living past 28, having created undeniable celebrity. Asif Kapadia lets her tell her story mostly in her own words, though it is often through people grabbing moments of her being in various stages of limelight and behind the scenes. The strength of the sound mix is key here because a lot of the archival footage is not much to watch. It does capture the tragic trajectory of Winehouse’s early teenage innocence and chutzpah among friends, and the not too much later Sid and Nancy like impenetrability of her very vulnerability on her face. The use of identifying narrators when not pictured is key to understanding who is telling Amy’s story, who is shifting our perspective. The most haunting part of the film is in the song lyrics that appear line-by-line as sung on screen, so you can see, feel, and hear them from the beautiful voice and the mind that you know no longer exists. Her song lyrics are aware, and even sometimes border on Shakespearean spoken word rhyme meets hip hop/pop, however graced by the golden jazz musician behind it. She is able to make a happy birthday song embellished to the max, long before she ever moved out of her family house into her own flat. No one gave Amy a sense of how to hold her own space in all of it, because no one knew how to be her. She went inside to write her songs, but couldn’t seem to sustain that space elsewhere. The brilliance of Winehouse will indelibly endure, though Amy is gone beyond.
“Its always a bit sad at the end, isn’t it?” she queries after recording her grammy winning hit. Devastatingly true.