I have been excited to see Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse documentary since I first heard Alicia Malone’s description of it at the Cannes film festival (here). I finally got to see it last week, and I left the theater with a profound feeling of disgust . . . at myself and my culture.
Amy tells the story of the British jazz singer Amy Winehouse through archival footage and voice-over interviews with friends and family. Winehouse’s words and songs are used to reveal and critique the forces behind her meteoric rise and tragic downfall. The film is unapologetic and brutal, casting blame for Amy’s fate towards celebrity worship, Winehouse’s standoffish family (especially her father), and Winehouse herself. It focuses largely on the latter part of Amy’s life as a professional singer, including her ascent from unknown vocalist to Grammy-winning superstar. Along the way, it evaluates complex concepts like drug addiction, adolescent naiveté, and the destructive nature of our parasitic celebrity worship culture.
The film opens with home video footage of a teenage Amy Winehouse singing, “Happy Birthday” with her iconic jazzy voice. Bereft of fame, she sings for silliness and joy with an unmistakable talent despite the simplicity of the song. This same sense of life accompanies Amy throughout her early career, as she breaks into the world of professional jazz singing. Radio and television interviews with Amy here showcase how irreverent the woman was towards the pursuit of fame. At one point she insists that all of that stuff is “bullshit” and “doesn’t matter” – and her opinion seems genuine. Instead, she focuses on the art of jazz singing and writing her own songs. Occasionally, Amy’s hand-scrawled lyrics appear on screen as she sings over them, sometimes slightly altered and sometimes precisely as she originally wrote them. But, throughout the first act, two vibrant truths emerge: Amy Winehouse is a seminal talent, and she doesn’t consider celebrity to be of any value.
Of course, whether or not she wanted fame was not really up to her. And the film makes an effort to show how people surrounding Amy were heavily invested in her burgeoning fame – particularly from her father Mitch Winehouse, her eventual husband Blake Fielder, and her second manager Raye Cosbert. Kapadia casts fault for Amy’s fate on each of these men to varying degrees, but is not content with the hypothesis that we would still have Amy with us were it not for these men. They may have contributed to her drug habits and drinking, or placed unwarranted pressure on her to perform during some of her most trying times, but they were mere individuals. A much greater force consumed Winehouse: a vampiric 24-hour news cycle out for the blood of the most talented and troubled.
As Amy ascended through the world of jazz music, she entered the full view of the public eye. It leered at her, keen on her beauty and talent, but it also drooled at the monetary promise of her vices. Soon, people were always hounding her for photos and autographs, and she felt her privacy evaporating. To cope, she chose drugs. Thus began a feedback loop: Amy’s habits would attract paparazzi intent on exploiting her struggles for their own gain, and she would attempt to alleviate the power of their constant attention with more drugs. News outlets and late-night talk show hosts would snigger at her poor on-stage performances, offering up her misery as entertainment for the rest of us.
Those directly around Amy had the power to call out to her and plead for her to help herself, and some did. Ultimately, though, it was not enough, and Amy succumbed to her illnesses and habits at the age of 27. Amy rose from obscurity to become an exciting new voice in jazz music, and we clapped. She became the preeminent vocalist in her industry, produced multiple hits, and we clapped. She faltered at the erosion of her personal life brought on by our attention, and we clapped. And as she tumbled from those heights into drugs, alcohol, and embarrassing performances, she struggled to keep some semblance of normalcy – and failed. And how we clapped.