I remember being, like so many others, attracted to the album Back To Black by Amy Winehouse when it was released in 2006. It was raw and terribly unique, and it captured a jazz quality that I really was keen on. It was a blending of sound and style that I haven’t heard before or since. On July 23, 2011, the music died and we lost that voice when the singer/song writer accidentally overdosed on alcohol.
The documentary Amy tells the story of the decade long struggle that lead to that fateful day. It is a sobering story that comments on the social stigma we place on addiction, celebrity and the media, and how devastating personal relationships can be when they are poisonous. Amy is a remarkably well assembled documentary that uses the technique of editing together audio from the subject and interviews from those who knew her into a narrative story that is to interesting, and at times surreal, that you need to remind yourself that it is indeed a very true story. I appreciate that there was no director intervention or written voice overs to distract from the story being told, or add unnecessary color. As a result, I found myself rooting for Amy Winehouse to find her way out of the traps she kept falling on to, and moved by her struggles to figure out where her place was in this world.
Her on again off again love interest turned husband Blake Fielder plays the role of the villain. Amy remains so firmly committed to him though the movie despite him being a complete enabler to all her drug and alcohol abuses. She can’t see past her infatuation with him long enough to get to a better place. The end of the movie is the most depressing moment, when it seems like she is turning a corner and has moved on from Blake, only to have one more rough night end in her death.
The aspect of this film that I found most interesting was just how deeply personal her songs are. The director, Asif Kapadia, intercuts live performance, studio recordings, and album versions into the story in a way that makes the viewer understand what exactly she was singing about. I have revisited Back to Black several times since I watched Amy and it is an entirely different listening experience. Despite the beats and the jazz, it is a very dark reflection on the demons that plagued the singer every day.
Amy is the best kind of documentary, or at least the kind I most enjoy. It involves a subject that is infinitely compelling on every level, a presentation style that puts forth no agenda but manages to raise some great questions, and a storytelling quality that keeps you captivated the entire time. It’s like a page turning book that you can’t put down, only more so because you realize this is an all too true story.
And it is in this true story of a single woman, a girl really, that we really see a bigger story, a more important story, and that’s the story of us. The documentary raises important questions about how we help those around us, how we let our fandom hurt others, and what does it mean to be an artist.
Amy Winehouse came from humble and far from perfect beginnings. As I stated above, Blake Fielder is the villain of the story, but there are many others that are passively complicit in her down fall. Her father, for example, would often try to capitalize on her celebrity for personal financial gain. Her studio relationships, managers and handlers tried to help, but only to the point it made sense for their business interests. It seems she had two friends who were consistently committed to helping her, but they simply could not cut through the noise of her destructively glamorous life.
This movie from A24 is worthy of the accolades it has received and is one of the best Documentaries I have seen. Last year was a great year for this studio and I look forward to what they have to offer in the years to come.
I will end this review with this pearl of wisdom from Tony Bennett, which he shares with Amy during their duet recording: “Life has a way of teaching us how to live it, if we can just live long enough”.
Did you see Amy? Do you think it should win the Oscar for best documentary? Leave a comment below and let’s keep the conversation going!