Another review, this one by Forbes ...
New Amy Winehouse Documentary Will Leave You Heartbroken and Furious: Review
On July 23, 2011, when Amy Winehouse joined the 27 Club—the group of famous musicians who have all died at that tender age— there was a sad sense of inevitability to her passing. The combination of her immense talent and even greater self-destructive tendencies were opposite ends of a lit candle that was destined to burn brightly but extinguish itself much too soon.
In Amy, the riveting new documentary directed by Asif Kapadia, the British singer’s life is examined from an early age, portraying her as someone who was always a little too much to handle for her parents and always a little too vulnerable for her own good. Mix that with depression, drugs, sycophants, and fame’s unrelentingly harsh glare—Winehouse says early and often that she thinks being famous will make her go mad—and the intoxicating elixir becomes a poisonous cocktail.
The film opens with home footage of a teenage Winehouse singing “Moon River” in a competition in 1998 and already showing a nascent command over her fluid, emotional vocals. Five years later, she had signed to Island Records and was on tour for her album Frank. In interview after interview, she considers herself a jazz singer, not a pop singer, who rails against the use of strings on her record, and, like Billie Holiday before her, is already aware of her potency for harm: “Now my destructive side has grown a mile wide,” she sings on “ What Is It About Men.”
Winehouse’s parents have lashed out against the documentary, claiming it misrepresents them, and there is good reason for them to be upset— at best, they come across as woefully naive and absentee; at worst, they are complicit in their daughter’s downward spiral. Her mom, Janis, talks about how Amy was a stubborn child who would tell Janis to be tougher on her since her mother seemingly had no idea how to parent a willful child. Later, when Winehouse becomes bulimic as a teen, her parents seem to think it’s just a phase. Winehouse’s dad, Mitch, started an affair when Amy was 18 months old, but didn’t leave her mother until Amy was 9. His departure and Amy’s desire to win his affection back at all costs plays out throughout the film, especially as he starts to enjoy her fame a little too much— including getting a reality show of his own.
If Winehouse’s drug addiction had a critical tipping point—and Winehouse’s seemed to have several— the one Kapadia decides to highlight is in 2005. Winehouse has broken up for the first time with the world’s worst boyfriend (and later her husband) Blake Fielder-Civil and her drinking is out of control. Many in her camp are trying to get her into rehab, but her father and her new manager (formerly her promoter) say she doesn’t have to go— and she doesn’t. Her dad’s words serve not only as the basis of her breakthrough international hit, “Rehab,” but also become a haunting reminder that the last best chance to stop Winehouse, who was not yet well known outside the UK, has passed.
Of course, in reality, there’s no way of knowing if getting Winehouse to rehab then would have stuck or changed the course of her life, but the movie makes the case that those who should have been looking out for an incapacitated Winehouse were already enjoying the gravy train too much to have her best interests at heart. No more so is that true than in 2007 after she has overdosed (with cocaine, heroin, alcohol and crack in her system) and her father refuses to take away her passport and make her go to rehab because he feels she needs to fulfill her touring obligations.
In that way, the movie plays out in a sad, familiar story that we’ve already seen too many times and just need to fill in the name, whether it’s with Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix or (even though he wasn’t 27), Michael Jackson. In some cases, these artists were crying out for help, but there was always one more tour, one more album, one more one more…and the enablers were more interested in keeping the money coming in than letting the artist, who at that point seemed incapable of helping him or herself, get much needed assistance.
After Winehouse releases Back to Black, the album that brought her international fame and several Grammys, she says, “If I really thought I was famous, I’d go top myself,” in an interview. Sadly, that’s exactly what happens. Her music explodes all over the world and the paparazzi expand from a few buzzing bees to the entire hive. Kapadia does an excellent job of showing what it must have been like for Winehouse to live in the fishbowl, not even able to leave her own house without a flurry of flashes. The footage is claustrophobic and horrifying and plays out against Winehouse’s drug descent (of which there is also an immense amount of footage thanks to camera phones) as it gains velocity.
She manages to get sober when her husband goes to jail after her label head says she can’t go to the Grammys if she doesn’t clean up her act (she ends up playing remotely from London), but three days after her 2008 Grammy sweep, she starts the drugs again.
Her last few years are a descent into hell. She is unable to muster whatever resolve she needs to clean up permanently, anyone speaking truth to power no longer has access to her, and her bodyguard is doing all he can to hold it together, but it’s a losing game.
Amid the destruction, there are moments of tender beauty. Winehouse manages to get straight to record “Body and Soul” with her idol, Tony Bennett, and we get a glimpse of the career she could have had through his eyes. As he sees her struggle, Bennett gets the last word: “Life teaches you how to live it if you can live long enough.” But, in Winehouse’s case, her days ran out before the lessons could be learned.
Amy, distributed by A24, opens in New York and Los Angeles on July 3 and nationwide on July 10.