MMT Quick Review: AMY

Amy (photo: A24)

A fan of the late Amy Winehouse’s music, but admittedly not a follower, I went into the advanced screening of the documentary AMY believing that a lot of the young singer/songwriter/musician’s journey had been well covered prior to her death – considering the amount of time many news outlets, tabloids, papers and the like spent reporting on her relationships, infamous bouts with drug addiction and her subsequent displays of erratic behavior. I could not have been more wrong and proceeded to learn quite a bit about this extraordinarily talented, yet oft misunderstood, artist who died at the age of 27-years-old – the same age as many of the genius talents that came before her, such as Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, and Cobain to name a few. Director Asif Kapadia has constructed a film that uses the late singer’s own words (via personal videos, interview footage and song lyrics), interviews with close friends – including actor/rapper Yasiin Bey – and relatives to give an up-close and personal account of the singer’s meteoric rise and her ultimately tragic descent.

From nearly the start of her catapult into superstardom, Amy Winehouse professed that she didn’t believe she would be, nor did she appear to want, to be famous – somewhat prophetically stating that she didn’t think she could handle fame and would subsequently “go mad.”  With familial influences that shaped her love of jazz, Winehouse became a featured vocalist in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra as a teen, and was greatly inspired by legendary jazz artists such as Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn, and Tony Bennett – the latter from whom, along with Natalie Cole, she accepted (via satellite from London) the 2008 Grammy award for “Record of the Year,” a moment the documentary beautifully captures. At one point in the film, the singer also shares that she would have been content becoming a jazz singer performing in multiple clubs to small audiences.

However, that was not her chosen path and, upon signing her first record deal, Winehouse moved out of her mother’s home – with a few unresolved issues, including the use of antidepressants as a teen. The film displays the pressures she faced after signing her contract, and the unfortunate decisions she made in relation to them. AMY also depicts the singer as a free spirit from childhood; one that both her parents arguably either couldn’t or didn’t easily redirect. It should be stated that the singer’s family, at first on board with the documentary, disagreed and disassociated from the final edit of the film (you can read further explanation and the family’s official statement in an April 2015 Rolling Stone article here). I did leave AMY wanting more of an explanation from Winehouse’s parents; otherwise I would say they appeared to be in denial/dismissive at least (mother with Amy’s eating disorder) and complicit/manipulative at worst (father with singer’s drug addiction) – and neither is a fair enough assessment, for me, without additional questioning of both parties.

I do believe AMY does a great job inviting the audience into the private life of the artist, and keeping our attention while she describes it on her own terms. I also think it appropriately depicts how our culture has evolved – via invasive paparazzi, tabloids and the like – to celebrate a person’s descent from the spotlight as much as it applauds the ascent. Amy Winehouse was a rare talent, whose prolific songwriting gave us direct access to areas of her life – raw and exposed. It’s unfortunate that the cost of fame does not allow that to be enough; and that she wasn’t insulated enough – for various reasons – to defeat the demons that haunted her most and impeded her great yet brief success.

In short, the documentary is raw, riveting, and bittersweet.  It runs at 127 minutes and has great concert and song footage – including previously unheard material. The film opened in limited release last Friday, and is opening everywhere today, July 10. You can check out a clip of Amy Winehouse recording her hit “Back To Black” with Mark Ronson below, and get additional information about AMY at the official website here.

Until next thought family, Thomasena

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