AMY * * *
A documentary directed by Asif Kapadia. Featuring Amy Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil, Mitch Winehouse, Yasiin Bey and Tony Bennett.
There’s a sequence I haven’t been able to shake that arrives near the end of Asif Kapadia’s harrowing documentary, Amy. It’s a massive outdoor concert in Belgrade, and Amy Winehouse is doing what she was by then notorious for doing – staggering out onstage shitfaced, a mess of collapsed beehive hair and smeared mascara. The immediately preceding scenes had offered the first few signs of light in a long time on this dark journey: Amy recorded a lovely duet with her hero Tony Bennett, talked about starting a jazz band with Questlove, and even began writing new songs again.
But the machinations of pop stardom being what they are, Winehouse couldn’t move forward without going back out on the road. At least not according to her management team, who the film bluntly calls out for not always acting with Amy’s best interests in mind, to say the least. For them, as well as for the cottage industries of enablers and hangers-on that so often spring up around superstars, the only way forward was to send her back into temptation. Back to the painful, nakedly emotional songs she’d written over five years ago about her toxic junkie dirtbag ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil. Back To Black.
In one of the most breathtaking pieces of concert footage I have ever seen, Winehouse simply will not sing. The band revs up the old, familiar hits and Amy, a now perilously frail figure dwarfed by her name in lights, defiantly ignores her cues. The musicians clamor on as she wanders around the stage for a bit, plopping herself down on a speaker with a smirk, as if once and for finally all saying: “No, no, no.” The audience first laughs at Amy living down to her reputation, but soon they turn — jeering, booing, hurling empties and trash at the stage.
A month later, Amy Winehouse was dead.
I vaguely recall hearing something about the Belgrade debacle at the time, but it was honestly tough by then to keep track of the tabloid tornado that had swept up all of Winehouse’s formidable artistic accomplishments and turned her very real, public suffering into cheap fodder for hack comedians’ laziest punchlines. The noble, if not always entirely successful, goal of Kapadia’s film is to put a human face on all those ghastly paparazzi photos. Amy wants to reintroduce us to Amy.
As in his previous documentary, Senna, Kapadia eschews the traditional talking heads format and layers audio interviews over a collage of archival footage. It’s a formal gambit that can feel more like a self-imposed constraint. (Sometimes you just wish you could see who’s talking.) But at least he’s blessed here with a treasure trove of home movies, catching the last gasp of the pre-smartphone era when people still actually used to shoot aimless hours of camcorder tomfoolery. So we meet the gobbish gal from Camden with the once-in-a-lifetime voice, praised by talk show host Jonathan Ross for “sounding so common.”
Winehouse didn’t exactly seem untroubled to begin with, but one still can’t help wonder what might have been, had Daddy not said she’s fine that first time they tried to make her go to rehab. Back in the early days of her career when her first album, Frank, was but a modest hit and Amy’s life still had some semblance of normality. Before Back To Black exploded into a supernova, and before the scummy Fielder-Civil introduced her to the wonders of crack cocaine.
What happens next will feel awfully familiar, even to those who never followed the tabloids. In fact, the infuriating thing about Amy is how pretty much this exact same movie could be made pretty much every year, except called Britney. Or Lindsay. Or Whitney. Or Bobbi Kristina. (In a ghoulish punchline, when I walked out of the theatre and looked at Twitter, my feed was full of snarky stories about Ariana Grande licking donuts.)
The film got me fuming about the meat-grinder of modern stardom in our garbage popular culture, the way we toss in these defenseless kids and then amuse ourselves to no end as they’re shredded. (Until they die, and then everybody suddenly makes a big fucking show out of being sad on Facebook for a day or two.) I know I’m plenty guilty of taking celebrity cheap-shots from time to time, but the profound amount of anguish onscreen in Amy got me seriously wondering: what is this sick pathology in our society that compels us to build up these young icons and then revel in tearing them down? What is it that we really want from these people?
Maybe the film’s ugliest scene arrives when alleged comedian George Lopez is announcing Winehouse’s Grammy nominations, cracking: “Can someone wake her up around six this afternoon and let her know?” The medium-talent continues his formal presentation of one of the music industry’s highest honors by calling her a “drunken ass.” Lopez’s rant is goosed along by sycophantic laughs from, among others who should’ve known better, Dave Grohl. (You figure if there’s one guy on that stage who already saw exactly how this story was gonna end…)
Mitch Winehouse has reportedly objected to his portrayal in this this film, claiming his most damning comments were taken out of context. But I’m still not sure of any context in which anyone could justify his appalling re-entrance late in the movie, when Amy’s been hiding out in St. Lucia, ducking the press and trying to get straight (which for her, by this point, means cutting out the crack and heroin and just drinking all day.) She invites her father down to reconcile, so of course Mitch arrives with his own reality-television show crew in tow.
A few minutes later, their blistering family squabble on the beach is interrupted by a vacationing American couple asking Amy to pose for a photo with them. “We’re sorry,” the tourists feebly protest while holding out their camera, “we hate to do this, but…”
“If you hated it, you wouldn’t do it,” Amy snipes. Then she smiles for the picture.