Many of us in the United States did not know who Amy Winehouse was when we learned through media reports of her tragic death at the age of 27. I was one of those. Asif Kapadia’s moving 2015 work of cinematography, AMY, ensures that we know who, and what, we lost that July day, 2011, and that we feel that loss intensely. It also unapologetically asks us to understand when sudden fame – and its associated institutions – projects itself, full blown, on young, talented, and vulnerable artist and ultimately contributes to the demise of those very artists.
The documentary is full of home videos, photographs, and films of professional and amateur performances of Amy singing live and in studios, and we hear interviews with her best friends Juliette Ashy and Lauren Gilbert, her managers Nick Shymansky and producers Salaam Remi and more, her keyboardist Sam Beste, her bodyguard Andrew Remi, people who loved her as a person and recognized her as the unpretentious person she was, the person with the big giant laugh and spoke from her heart. We hear her father speak. We see videos of and hear her boyfriend/husband/ex-husband Blake Fielder-Cecil speak – who always seems to be undermining Amy’s sobriety. As Amy’s fame skyrockets, we’re shown hoards of paparazzi’s flashbulbs going off like a hailstorm outside her home. We see her TV performances on David Letterman Show, concerts around the world, and some very moving cuts from the taping of her duet of ‘Body and Soul,’ whose lyrics Amy wrote, with her hero, Tony Bennett. Tony Bennett is one of the few who understood that Amy was a jazz singer, not just a great voice, and who understood her potential as a musician, not as a commodity.
Kapadia so touchingly portrays on screen the moment when Tony Bennett pronounced her album “Back to Black” as the winner of the 2008 Pop Vocal Record of the Year, it beating out the likes of Rihanna and JayZ, Justin Timberlake and Beyonce, while Amy is in a room with her band, managers, and fans back in the UK via live feed with the Grammys and spontaneously commenting until the moment of truth: We see her stunned upon hearing her name pronounced by Tony Bennett, her idol, but it was not that she won: It’s that her her idol, Tony Bennett, had pronounced her name.
I rallied when I saw Amy clean, and writing lyrics and music, and it was painful to see her failures to remain drug- and alcohol-free. Footage of Jay Leno getting laughs at Amy’s expense over her early use of crack cocaine, as she struggled with her dual addictions to heroin and alcohol are difficult to watch. But there is a humane method to Kapadia’s Amy, as the director reveals little by little, the layers of Amy’s emotional complexity: Halfway through the moving he reveals a new struggle: her struggle with her bulemia, which had plagued her from when she was a teenager. We are rooting for her to succeed and just be Amy, but this adds one more challenge now, and meanwhile we hear quotes from her physicians that her heart is being weakened from successive uses of heroin, alcohol and bulemic episodes, and imploring her to stay sober. The movie deals gently with the depression Amy experienced (“I always go back to black”), of which she is aware. In the opening scenes of the movie she expresses her dissatisfaction with her emotionally weak mother and her absent father, an unhappiness which followed her through her life. She is not a person who has no self-awareness; she is a person who is trapped by her neediness, her disease of alcoholism, and the demands of entertainment contracts to perform.
As someone who has been around family members dealing with addictions and co-dependencies for many years, I appreciated Kapadia’s efforts to look not just at the disease and addiction side of chemical dependencies and bulimia, at major efforts by many of her associates to encourage her to go to rehab and who scheduled interventions, but I also appreciated his treatment of the psychological side of her neediness. Kapadia never explicitly blamed Mr. Winehouse, Amy’s father, for the role he played in her depression, but he doesn’t shy away from providing us with footage and interviews that reveal Mr. Winehouse’s failure to be the father who Amy wanted and needed. When a trip to remote San Trope island for a badly needed vacation and opportunity for Amy to stay sober and be herself with friends who support her sobriety is scheduled, Mr. Winehouse has brought along a camera crew. The voiceover indicates Amy wanted her father, plain and simple, something that it seems to me she sadly did not resolve within her short life.
Amy was fortunate that she had friends who cared enough to insist she go to rehab and who initiated interventions. She was fortunate that she had friends and associates in the music industry who knew to not be enablers and to be able to draw the line on doing business with her as well as maintaining friendships with her. This is so often not the case with entertainers and those who are not entertainers. But the ‘power person’ in her life, her father, advocated for Amy to keep her contractual obligations over her obligation to protect her own health and life, which this we hear clearly in footage in Mr. Winehouse’s own words. Being the ‘power person and recommending that Amy fulfill the contractual demands, Mr. Winehouse is the one who Amy listened to because that’s whose acceptance she was most needy of. It was an unfortunate spiral downward. While I was rooting for Amy, and hoping she would say NO NO NO to global tours that were detrimental to her health, only to see scenes of her drunk onstage and being booed (“I want my money back!”), the deep emotional scars of her life were evidently playing themselves out over and over again. Even when Amy committed to changing her life, the scars and the disease were still there, and one more transgression was all it took to silence her artistic genius.
Amy was a prolific songwriter as well, and when we watched and listened to her sing, the lyrics, line by line, rolled across the screen. The lyrics handwritten on paper, and we often saw her actual – and very neat – handwriting of the lyrics, with their chord progressions, didn’t always make so much sense to me, but when shown as she sang them, the lyrics rose to tell a fully compelling story that the public could relate to. Amy’s was a rare talent. We learn to care about Amy all the more because she didn’t want fame; she wanted to make music. “I don’t think that I could handle it. I’d go mad,” she said early in her career.
One image from early in the film stuck with me throughout: the video of the emerging superstar in the back of a car, wrapped in a blanket, not just any blanket but a “Hello Kitty” blanket, trying to get some sleep. Amy was a child thrust into the limelight because of her immense talent, vulnerable to the end, and Kapadia wants us to remember this.
Even in the end of the movie we see photos of her as a teenager, as a young girl again, with an easy smile, as a teenager, and young adult with a big and generous heart who just loved to sing and make music and to record albums.
The final scene of the movie shows the outside of the London synagogue where Amy Winehouse’s funeral was held, as guests were filing out. I saw her male friends and musical associates, many not Jewish, but wearing kippot (head-coverings) to show their respect, and weeping at the loss of their friend and a great talent, who many of them had tried to save. I thought to myself that in the end, Amy Winehouse was always always just a simple Jewish girl from North London.