Greetings again from the darkness. Some may know Amy Winehouse as the Grammy award winning singer, while others may know of her as the drug-addled target of the paparazzi who died from alcohol poisoning 4 years ago. Still others may be asking “Amy who?” Director Asif Kapadia (Senna, 2010) delivers a film that doesn’t shy away from the brutally tough “down” times, but also shines a light on the “up” times for this suburban Northern London Jewish kid who was simply unable to manage her rare musical talent, profound personal weaknesses, and the relentless media pressure.
Did you know Amy played guitar? Kapadia includes film of her crafting songs while strumming, and also early performance clips of her on stage with her Stratocaster. It’s these rarely seen film clips … some home movies, some phone videos from fans, and some from other photographers … that provide the leave-no-doubt proof of Amy’s musical genius – both as a vocal artist and a songwriter. Some of the clips provide a glimpse of her charm and sense of humor and desire for normalcy, while others show the bulimic, strung-out party girl mixed up with the wrong guy. We see her casually hanging out with her childhood friends, and later slurring words and staggering through the strobing flashbulbs. The contrast is heartbreaking.
While the typical documentary approach of “talking heads” is almost non-existent, we get plenty of insight from sources such as: her two closest friends, producer Mark Ronson, husband and enabler Blake Fielder-Civil, friend and first manager Nick Shymansky, music executive Lucian Grainge, and fellow artist Mos Def/Yasiin Bey. Amy’s longtime keyboardist Sam Beste cuts right to the bone when he says she “needed music”. That insight when combined with her childhood issues really bring into focus what allowed Amy to live, and then what snatched joy right away from her.
Even from a young age … we see her at 16 … Amy was an old soul, seemingly born into the wrong era. The music erupted from a place very few have. The number of performance clips are limited, but there is one when she is 20-21, and when she sings the word “emulate”, it takes on meanings not yet defined by Webster’s. Contrasting that with the legendary Tony Bennett coaxing her through a recording session is painful to watch, while simultaneously providing a front row seat to musical genius.
Director Kapadia shines a certain light on Amy’s dad Mitch, her husband Blake, and others that were close to her. It’s Sam Beste’s frustration at failing on that first attempt at rehab that brings the biggest “what if?” Of course, that failure led to her biggest recording success with “Rehab” (no, no, no), but might it have also cost Amy her happiness and possibly even her life? The final Belgrade concert was one month prior to her joining the 27 Club, and perhaps it’s just further proof that Amy simply “can’t be that thing” that the fans and media tried to turn her into. Whether you are an Amy fan or not, this is a gut-wrenching look at how a talented artist struggled with life and fame … until the struggles won out.
watch the trailer: