Monday, July 13, 2015

AMY (2015)

Directed by Asif Kapadia

Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. July 5, 2015 3:15PM

"Amy", a fascinating documentary by award-winning film maker, Asif Kapadia, examines the tragically short life of pop star, Amy Winehouse. It begins around 1998 with a fresh-faced and healthy-looking British teenager who loves jazz, knows she's got a great singing voice and looks to have a bright future ahead. By the time we reach the end of the film, thirteen years later, Winehouse has become a Grammy-winning, world famous vocalist but also deteriorated into a dead-eyed, gaunt and drug-addled figure before her untimely death due to alcohol poisoning at the age of twenty-seven. The director uses the extensive news footage that covers the singer's meteoric rise and just as rapid decline to shape this film but there are also words from Winehouse herself through previously unheard interviews. She was tough yet charming, witty, loved to have a laugh and wanted to have a singing career with integrity. But once fame entered the picture, Winehouse comes across far too vulnerable and unprepared for the unyielding pressures of the music business and the relentless media assault. It's understandable that she would want to find escape but her family support seemed blinded by her new-found success and the record company's motivation was simply keeping their product in motion. This left Winehouse with few options to help relieve herself of the constant stress.

Born in Southgate, North London, Winehouse was a working class girl and proud of it. With a mature, husky voice and a gift for songwriting, she performed with several jazz outfits before getting signed with 19 Management at nineteen. Her first album, "Frank" in 2003, a collection of jazz-pop tunes mostly co-written by Winehouse, brought her some attention and a small taste of fame in Britain. With the arrival of her follow-up, "Back To Black" four years later, Winehouse would reach international acclaim. This is also when signs of serious trouble first began to surface.

Around the time of "Back To Black", Winehouse began appearing with the look most associated with the singer, which was actually a nod to one of her idols, Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes. Cleopatra-style, black-lined eyes, a messy, collapsed beehive and rail-thin arms covered in prison tattoos to complete her bad-girl image. It was also during this time she fell hard for Blake Fielder-Civil, a true bad boy. Their relationship was on and off (and he's credited with introducing her to hard drugs) but they married in 2007 and spent their brief union in a sometime violent, drug and alcohol-fueled haze. Winehouse soon reached the point where she couldn't perform at all, completely lost in substance abuse. There were several rehab interventions but none having a lasting impact.

Mr. Kapadia's decision to rely on archival footage and not show the faces of the people being interviewed does make the film feel static but what brings it to life is how the director uses the singer's music. When the songs are played, the heartfelt lyrics by Winehouse are displayed, clearly reflecting what she was feeling during some of the happy or more turbulent times in her life. Many of the important people in Winehouse's life including close childhood friends, parents, Mitch and Janis, record producers, Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson and the love of her life, Fielder-Civil all express their deep love for the singer but also their feeling of uncertainty and helplessness as they watched her unravel.

It could appear that Amy Winehouse might be just another rock & roll cliché, joining the list of talented but troubled artists whose lives came to an end at the exact same age. But we see that she was never interested in becoming rich or a household name, it was always about the music.

After seeing "Amy", I can understand why the family is now hostilely opposed to this documentary they once fully supported. For the director's vision brings in to sharp focus how they played a small yet striking role in the demise of this gifted, young artist. It would be unfair to let Winehouse off the hook for her own destructive behavior but as this troubled and unstable girl was continuously being shoved in to the spotlight, she was much too sensitive to handle the constant glare of stardom.