Monday, December 21, 2015

Amy: A Harrowing Tale

Directed by virtuoso British filmmaker Asif Kapadia, Amy is a documentary about the troubled life of singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse. The movie came and went fairly quickly in theaters this summer, as most documentaries are wont to do, but you can now watch it on DVD or streaming. It is a thoughtful, sobering, impossibly sad look at the price of fame and fortune in the modern era.

The startling thing about Amy is the amount of archival footage the filmmakers were able to obtain. Because Amy Winehouse was born in 1983, she was surrounded by camcorders (and later mobile phones), allowing her friends and family to document her childhood and teenage years well before she was famous. In these videos, we get the sense of the ordinary and fun-loving girl she was. She had warm friends, a loving but messy relationship with her divorced parents, and that extraordinary voice that would bring her adulation and recognition but ultimately serve as her downfall.

We follow the story of Amy's career - the initial foray into jazz clubs and low-key venues, the introduction to a record label, and the 2003 release of her acclaimed debut album, Frank. Her artistry, not just as a vocalist, but as a poetic lyricist, is touted throughout the film, with her handwritten words floating on the screen alongside her mesmerizing voice singing many previously unheard of songs. Composer Antonio Pinto also provides a beautiful background score in between her own music that underscores the beauty and grief of her life. Her love and passion for music is what comes across most powerfully in all the TV and radio interviews she did; watching that waste away is what breaks your heart.

Amy faced many struggles. As a young teen she suffered from bulimia. As she became more famous and started to face more pressure, she turned to drugs and alcohol. She fell into tempestuous relationships with similarly troubled men who could only enable her addictions instead of  helping her. Her friends, family, and employers had no idea how to stop her downward spiral - at one point they convinced her to go to rehab, where we get deeply ironic footage of her singing, "They tried to make me go to Rehab, I said, 'No, no, no.'" But after brief spells of sobriety, she always fell back into her old ways. Despite her soaring career and her 2008 Grammy wins for her second album, Back to Black, her personal life was a continually poisonous mess of addiction and insecurity.

The overwhelming emotion you will experience while watching Amy is sadness, not anger. The movie is not interested in blaming anyone for her circumstances - they were a perfect storm that conspired to destroy her utterly. Towards the end, her worried family and friends were all on the sidelines, unaware of how dire things have gotten and how they could possibly help. Her bodyguard was the only remaining person who was close to her; he knew she was being pushed beyond her limits, but he too could do nothing to stop it. We see her increasingly erratic performances, her fading confidence, her distressing appearance, and finally arrive at 23 July 2011, when her body was carried out of her house. Ultimately, Amy is a sad and powerful documentary that celebrates the music of a true genius but also mourns the songs that we will never get to hear.

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