MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Directed by Asif Kapadia. Documentary
It didn’t take long for British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse to become an international sensation, but her downward spiral was taking place alongside of her rising fame. Her drug and alcohol abuse accompanied by bulimia was kept private for awhile by her management and family, but by the time her second album, Back to Black had won three Grammy awards in 2008, Amy’s health was at a precarious point and she was having a difficult time performing onstage. Attempts at intervention and successful rehab proved unsuccessful.
Amy died from alcohol poisoning in her London flat in 2011 at the age of 27.
British filmmaker Asif Kapadia had known singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse when she was younger, growing up in the same London neighborhood, and wanted to create a film that would show the world the complexity, beauty and brilliance of her talent and personality, while also showing how tabloid journalism and opportunistic friends and family created a codependency that was harmful to Amy’s fragile and addiction-prone personality.
There is no narration at all in Amy, but rather a chronological collage of photos, home movies and cell phone videos, interviews with those who knew her, and many live musical performances. I was blown away by how professional and assured Amy Winehouse was onstage. Amy not only sang her songs with authority and control, but could also bring forth a sense of joy that was electric. She was a natural entertainer who melded rock, pop, R&B, reggae and hip-hop to create a unique sound.
Amy wrote most of the songs she recorded. We see the lyrics printed on the screen as they are sung. Amy was not only capable of writing intelligent and often witty lyrics, but these songs were starkly autobiographical and often tinged with sadness and remorse. Even her peppy hit “Rehab” shares how her friends attempted an intervention to get her into treatment but “Daddy says I’m fine”.
Amy had some friends who cared deeply about her, including her first manager Nick Shymansky and her two lifelong girlfriends Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert. But her home life was tumultuous. When Amy was young her father Mitch left the family while having an extramarital affair. After fame came her way, Amy’s father suddenly reappeared on the scene and Amy could not deny the love that she had for him, even as he was using her stardom to make himself a celebrity, starring in his own reality show.
Amy was married for two years to Blake Fielder-Civil, a drug-abusing boyfriend. Amy’s second manager would book concert dates that she would be unable to perform due to her drug-addled condition. The paparazzi wasted no time dogging her steps to catch her in one more compromising situation.
In the last year of her life Tony Bennett reached out to her to record a duet, honoring her talent at a time when it seemed that the world was finished with her. The film includes videos from that difficult recording session, revealing Tony’s patience, love, and professional respect for Amy.
It is a rare documentary that transcends its subject matter to become something more. Amy is a thought-provoking morality play, paying tribute to short life of a great talent while also revealing the vulnerability that was so often exploited by tabloid journalism and hangers-on.
Three halos: The heartbreaking and compassionate story of a gifted musician whose sudden celebrity ignited the negative forces all around her, igniting her inner struggles.
Three pitchforks: Heavy drug use; bulimia; cutting; pervasive swearing; the sins of hypocrisy, greed, and exploitation.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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