Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Life Destroyed By Fame, Drugs (And Some Of Us)

Amy Winehouse, who is chronicled in Asif Kapadia's excellent documentary "Amy".

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Sunday, July 19, 2015

“Alcohol is bad, kids,” semi-jokes Amy Winehouse in Asif Kapadia’s documentary “Amy”, an excellent horror movie of triumph, tragedy and demons.  That her last name was Winehouse carries a tad bit of misfortune, but Mr. Kapadia’s film stands alone as a powerful look at fame, money, accountability, vice and the rise and fall of one of music’s biggest talents. 

The blame for Amy Winehouse’s deadly fall isn’t limited to alcohol, drugs, bulimia, depression or even a series of failed father figures or her own father and mother.  “Amy” casts appropriately scathing indictment on the media and paparazzi, whose violent cascade of flashbulbs are like bullets to Ms. Winehouse’s heart. 

By extension and implication “Amy” surmises that we as the general public also come in for heavy scrutiny and guilt in the North London singer-songwriter’s 2011 death.  In shame I can count myself among those who unthinkingly parroted the negative media headlines in the years of decline before Ms. Winehouse’s eventual death.  Much of the media (and myself) hadn’t known of or truly appreciated Amy Winehouse’s great ability as a jazz, R&B and reggae singer before they crudely zeroed in on her.  “Amy” will provide those unfamiliar with her music a comprehensive look at her catalogue including fine selections from her albums “Back To Black” and “Frank”.

Meticulously built and well-made, “Amy” is a furious tug-of-war between the literal and figurative angels and devils that circled around Amy Winehouse, and how the devils finally and cruelly won the day.  “All [Amy] needed was someone to put an arm around her and tell her to stop,” her close friend and live-in bodyguard Andrew Morris says, in a refrain that becomes an anthem throughout.  Enablers, including crack-addicted husband Blake Fielder and her absent-when-present father Mitch, cripple Ms. Winehouse.  Add those revelations to the pressures of fame culture and expectation, the singer’s private vices, and parental failure, the devastating cocktail “Amy” chronicles is the death sentence that results. 

There are extremely unbearable and painful moments in “Amy”, in which a vulnerable and tormented Ms. Winehouse is stripped bare on stage and behind the scenes.  Fans in Serbia taunt and assault her while she is clearly incapacitated on stage.  It’s a vitriolic feeding frenzy that is deeply disturbing.  And that’s one of several episodes that haunted and jarred me.  What also pains many, including myself, is that Amy Winehouse should be alive and well right now.

After watching “Amy” I saw Ms. Winehouse for what she was: a phenomenal artist victimized by the monetary greed of others, and the vulture appetites of a demanding public.  It’s an oft-told story that has claimed the lives of others in “The 27 Club” - a club the late singer correctly predicted she’d be part of: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones among others, none of whom saw 28.

For all its immense sadness and heartbreak “Amy” shows us a charismatic, honest and highly intelligent being who loved life, believed in artistic purity, abhorred fame, and stayed true to herself even amidst self-destruction.  (Her lyrics exemplified her deeply personal struggles in such songs as “Rehab” and “What Is It About Men”.)  Bolstered by incredible audio and archival footage, “Amy” brings us closest to the truth of Amy Winehouse and the machinery around her, perhaps suggesting that her own fiercely independent spirit, cultivated at age four according to her mother, needed to be tamed and never was.

Mr. Kapadia is supremely adept at documenting figures who are not only larger than life but singular and unique enough to spur revolutions of thought, fear and higher consciousness.  These figures, like Formula One champion Ayrton Senna (“Senna”) and the extremely creative Ms. Winehouse, are bigger than the systemic forces around them can comprehend, are highly beloved and usually done in by the glory or adrenaline they thrive on. 

No one chronicles such figures with the care, detail and affection that Mr. Kapadia does, and he has an exquisitely keen read on the pulses of the personalities he chronicles.  In “Amy” he opts predominantly for audio over talking heads, a fine strategy that evokes a reservoir of emotion, poignancy and room for us to reevaluate what we think we know about Amy Winehouse, someone who genuinely loved and didn’t appropriate Jazz as an art form.

As a net result, “Amy” left me with a greater appreciation for Amy Winehouse, and her passing, which will be four years ago this Thursday, hurts even more

“Amy” is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for language and drug material.  The film's running time is two hours and eight minutes.

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