Watching “Amy,” the new documentary about the life and death of pop star Amy Winehouse, I found myself nodding quite a bit.
By Noah Gittell
Watching “Amy,” the new documentary about the life and death of pop star Amy Winehouse, I found myself nodding quite a bit. The film’s assertions about the destruction that fame can foster in the life of sensitive artists seem right. But it didn’t make me cry, laugh, or feel much of anything at all, and the reason is simple: the filmmakers have taken Winehouse’s life and crafted a story that we’ve seen countless times before. We know of many singers who have survived troubled childhoods only to have their old demons turn on them under the unforgiving glare of the spotlight. Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jeff Buckley. What makes Winehouse’s story different and thus worth the telling?
The answer, unfortunately, is nothing. “Amy,” directed by Asif Kapadia, effectively tracks the ups and downs of Winehouse’s all-too-brief adult life while hitting all of the notes we expect. We learn about her broken childhood home; her father carried on a secret affair for a decade before finally leaving his wife. As a result, Winehouse as an adult seemed perpetually eager to win his approval. If her father was the token absent parent, her mother was the ineffectual one. In early scenes, she describes Winehouse’s days as a defiant toddler and casually laments that the girl “just wouldn’t listen.” Well, that’s because she was a toddler.
The most striking thing about the film is just how much rawmaterial of Winehouse exists. Even from a young age, she seemed to love to be on camera, mugging for and flirting with the viewer at every opportunity. The co-dependent relationship between Winehouse and the lens hints at an essential absence in her psyche, and her lyrics reflect it. The film prints her words onscreen during her performances to underline how deeply personal they were. It was as if Winehouse needed a reflection of herself in order to feel real, and as such the form of the film – which relies almost exclusively on raw footage, as opposed to talking heads – conveys an essential truth.
It’s something close to pure cinema, as her story is told only through montage. It’s rare that a documentary like this eschews artistic flourishes. It also might be foolhardy. The similarly-themed “Kurt Cobain:
Montage of Heck,” which was released this year, livened up its story by animating the late singer’s pages full of doodles, and resulted in a far more compelling film. As it stands, the most memorable footage is of Winehouse simply performing. She was a captivating presence on stage – even when, late in her career, she was too intoxicated to really sing – but we don’t need a two-hour documentary to see that.
Even without gimmickry, there are stronger narratives that could have been fashioned from Amy’s story. Her relationship with her father was sketched out in broad terms, but it deserves a far more serious inquiry than it received here. Ditto that of her boyfriend Blake Fielder whom she engaged in a co-dependent relationship with before he mysteriously was imprisoned for obstructing justice. An even better choice would have been to hold a mirror up to the audience and explore how the public seemed eager for news of Winehouse’s struggles with addiction; the film hints at this subtext by showing monologue jokes from Jay Leno and other late night TV hosts but ultimately lets its audience off the hook.
The fact that these things actually happened to Winehouse – and are not just the result of poor writing – at least lends the old story an air of specificity. Putting a human face on a cliché certainly upgrades the material. But the film never really engages the audience on any one particular idea, besides noting that fame is, um, bad, and the media exploits and destroys the same people that our society chooses to celebrates. That media, of course, is rapidly changing these days. Perhaps it’s comforting to know that some things never change.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue