Riding Fame’s Inherent Rollercoaster
The entirety of Amy, Asif Kapadia’s riveting and heartbreaking documentary about Amy Winehouse, is made of archived footage — home videos, tabloid photos, concert tape, recording sessions, publicity interviews – that alternate between the intimate and the exploitative. The film examines her tortured, talented life mostly in chronological order, from her jazz-inspired beginnings, to her pop sensationalism, to her alcohol-poisoned death in 2011. The tapestry that’s been stitched from camcorders, YouTube videos and news clips feels intrusive but necessary. All that we saw of Winehouse came through performances and tabloid headlines. Amy deconstructs them and asks you to look at those photos and videos again, this time knowing her struggles, without the bold lettering on top of them.
This works, particularly when Kapadia lingers on photos, because you’re forced to reckon with Amy’s body, from her healthy, precocious younger self to her thinner, tattooed and eye-lined mask years later. Amy begins with her as a 14-year-old, hanging with two friends at a birthday party, when she erupts into a rendition of “Happy Birthday” that at once steals the chorus from the room and signals the incredulity of her rich voice. Two years later she had a manager, Nick Shymansky, just 19, and their partnership and eventual deep friendship, produced her first hit record, “Frank,” which gave the world a fateful taste of a Jewish girl from North London who had the soul of someone 20 years older.
Most of these younger years are given vibrant details from Shymansky, who gave Kapadia 12 hours of video footage, which he had acquired during his years promoting Amy. These are mostly silly diaries of backseat conversations that might have been clipped, and offered less humor and humanity, had she grown up in today’s Snapchat-shortened environment. But as you likely know, online media eventually sprouted as Amy’s career began to uproot, fertilized by her revealing song lyrics and battles with alcohol and drug addiction, distorted by the chasing paparazzi. To have those struggles as a burgeoning icon is sadly understandable. To have them climax at the dawn of the pop culture blogosphere only added to her public demise.
There’s a tendency for documentaries to play therapist, to discover the root of their subject’s illness based on findings they believe profound or particularly insightful. That doesn’t seem to be the case here, because even though a few narrations about Winehouse’s rocky childhood suggest the source of her downfall, Kapadia treats her spiral into fame and oblivion, much as Robert F. Kennedy might have analogized, as a series of ripples gathering currents along the way, climbing to a tidal wave. It helps that Winehouse used her lyrics as a mirror. “I can’t help but demonstrate my Freudian fate,” she moans in “What Is It About Men,” describing her father Mitch’s years of cheating on her mother, who was, herself, defined as soft and inattentive to Amy’s desire for discipline – noted most prominently when Amy’s bulimia is treated as a fad and not a smoke signal for her teenage depression.
Part of what gives this documentary weight, as both a sad portrait and a celebration of talent, is what gave Amy separation from her peers. Kapadia repeatedly inserts her lyrics onto the screen as she sings them, tracking verses from her notebooks as they’re heard. The songs take on significance because of their poetic heft, but also because of their personal implications. Much of Amy’s life was devoted to Blake Fielder, her rotating boyfriend-turned-husband who inspired the title track on her Grammy-winning album “Back To Black.” The film cuts to a recording session of that song, and it isolates her voice from the rest of producer Marc Ronson’s background mix. For a moment, you understand singing as catharsis. It encapsulates her loneliness and dependency on him. The scene rings of Merry Clayton’s turn belting out “Gimmee Shelter” in 20 Feet From Stardom.
Unlike that documentary, which chronicled backup singers’ often forgotten voices and long awaited rise to the front of the stage, Amy portrays her subject as secular to those rooted desires, despite the privileges fame afforded her. “I’d probably go mad,” she tells a reporter early in her career when he asks about her inevitable trajectory of fame. The words are haunting, like most of the documentary, because we see her prediction come true, in all of its volatile ways. Blake introduced her to cocaine and heroin shortly after marrying and alcohol remained an integral part of her diet, intoxicating her concerts and musical genius, for better or for worse.
“Rehab,” her biggest hit which exponentially climbed the charts in 2007, spawned from real conversations with family and friends, who tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to get her clean against the wishes of Mitch, who appears more preoccupied with fulfilling tour dates and banking on his daughter’s whirlwind of fame. One sequence shows his ignorance to reality when he brings a film crew to St. Lucia, where Amy wanted to hide from the media, to shoot a reality show about his life. Even as “Rehab” is enjoyable to hear, it’s painful to listen to. The chorus in that song — “They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said, no, no, no” — became a kind of cultural shorthand to joke about her enduring struggles, sobering up and relapsing, competing and negotiating with hundreds of opinions and diagnoses. It’s possible to hate Jay Leno even more here.
“Things do not pass for what they are, but for what they seem. What is invisible might as well not exist,” wrote Baltasar Gracian. Amy Winehouse, as is made evident, persistently pushed back against that belief (one her managers knew quite well), resisting the fame that runs parallel with success, a term she never aligned with money. The jazz clubs were her home, a space of intimacy that she could never replicate in front of 50,000 screaming fans and flash mobs of photographers. They (we) all painted her one way: a mess. After a recording session with Tony Bennett near the end of her life, you realize how far from the truth that was. “You’re different on every recording,” he tells her. The tragedy of her shortened life is realizing that too late.