In a home video, a 14-year-old Amy Winehouse is singing Happy Birthday to one of her two best friends. And goodness, that voice. An older jazz singer’s voice boomed out of that pretty, smiling girl who looked happy with her friends, her life ahead of her. And what a life it could’ve been.
After Senna, his look at the Grand Prix champion who tragically died in 1994 during a race in Italy, Asif Kapadia revisits one of the greatest voices in music history. Called Amy, its title is as simple as the documentary itself, yet rich in content.
Amy is mostly a montage of home videos, footage from interviews, awards shows, with comments from her friends, Mos Def, Questlove, Mark Ronson, Tony Bennett, and her Svengali father Mitch Winehouse. What we learn about her may not come as a big surprise, but there are some unknown facets to her. She was sensitive and insecure, deeply affected by her father walking out on the family when she was little.
She evokes it in “What Is It About Men” in a spellbinding live rendition; it’s hard to believe she is only 21 in the footage. One line from the tune stands out: “My destructive side has grown a mile wide.”
They tried to make me go to rehab
I said, “no, no, no”
Yes, I been black
But when I come back, you’ll know, know, know
I ain’t got the time
And if my daddy thinks I’m fine
He’s tried to make me go to rehab
I won’t go, go, go
It’s disconcerting to watch Mitch arrive at his daughter’s so-called hideout in the Caribbean with a full camera crew a few months prior to her death. We see her questioning her Svengali father’s ill judgment. He loved his daughter but had his own agenda for her — his persistence that she play more shows and above all failure to recognize her addiction problems, thinking music would resolve them. Music was indeed her salvation, but success became her damnation.
It is shocking to see her managers and promoters all denying any sort of responsibility for her spiraling descent into drugs. The only person who seemed to care was her bodyguard. She confided in him, perhaps looking for a surrogate father, one who would listen and emphatize rather than push her to do more than she could handle.
Yet she “worships the ground her father walks on” and holds on to him, afraid of what would happen if she were to let go. Just like she holds on to her husband Blake Fielder-Civil, who introduced her to hard drugs. Despite the kisses I witnessed her blowing to him during an unforgettable private showcase in Paris back in 2007, they had a dysfunctional relationship. He must have felt effaced next to her. She filled up the room; he was a mere ghost existing only through her, and later seemed to resent her for it. She had the presence he lacked.
She also had a wicked sense of humor and was unabashedly honest. When an interviewer had no better to question to ask her than something inane about Dido — and insisting upon an answer — Amy’s facial expressions are hilarious. They run the gamut from surprise to disdain, boredom and finally WTF, and it is comical to watch.
The film touched me all the more as I have written so much about her. When I first heard the advance copy of Back in Black, I was blown away (and I rarely use this expression) by this girl’s voice echoing the phantoms of the jazz pantheon. I wanted to write something about her, much to my then-editor’s protestation: “No one knows who she is.” I wrote it anyway. A month later, “Rehab” was on rotation on every radio, iPod, CD player. She sold millions and eyeliner sales skyrocketed.
Her style was a major part of her persona. She was retro-meets-the-millennium. It was all part of her intense personality: her beehive hairdo reached new heights and her feline eyeliner stretched further out as her success grew. And unfortunately, her addictions followed suit and intensified as well.
I saw her a few months after the Paris showcase in Munich at the MTV Europe Music Awards. Her concert the night before in Paris had received poor reviews and in Munich it was evident her descent had spiraled to a dangerously low level. She was simply “out of it.”
Despite the drugs, she had spunk, a unique presence that swallows the screen in Amy. We are mesmerized by this girl who speaks so eloquently, unpretentious in her speech and deeply loyal to her North London roots. And when she sings, her accent disappears and she sounds like she’s from the golden age of jazz. For Tony Bennett, she was certainly one of the greatest voices ever.
Bennett was her idol. She is transfixed on the screen as she watches doe-eyed from the stage of a London event as the Grammys are broadcast live. Bennett is presenting one of the many awards she won that night. “Dad, it’s Tony Bennett,” she says, her voice nervous. I remember covering the event — we put her on the front page of the paper I worked for the next day — yet what her friend (one of the two teens we see in the home video footage at the beginning of the film) remembers from that night reveals Amy’s real state of mind at the time. She pulled her up on stage and took her aside to confess that it was all “so boring without drugs.” The friend recounts how she went from feeling proud of her to feeling pity. She had the world at her feet but could not handle it.
Asif Kapadia has composed a movie without pathos. It is a biography of sorts of a behind-the-scenes Amy Winehouse but also an incredible tribute to her as an artist. And it’s more than just a glimpse into her life. We get a better understanding of this ebullient, effervescent yet erratic personality who undeniably had an exceptional gift, a real knowledge of jazz music for someone so young, a unique style of interpreting a song and, above all, owning it, as we watch her recording with producer Mark Ronson, who we later see attending her funeral.
We know how the movie will end, yet the images of Amy being carried out of her Camden home in a body bag are still shocking. In July 2011, she joined the infamous 27 Club, that purgatory where 27-year-old rockers and singers dwell. Rarely has a celebrity death moved me so much.
Rest in peace, Amy.
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