“Amy” gives us what an artist who spent far too much time in the tabloids deserves –honest representation – and manages to be both unsentimental and quietly devastating.
I have terribly little personal history with Amy Winehouse’s music. I remember hearing “Rehab” on the radio eight years ago, when I was still being driven by my mother, and I recall her disapproving of the song. I suppose I was more impressionable than I’d like to admit, because my rather baseless opinion of her from then on consisted of skepticism, and judgement. And so, one of the greatest gifts in watching Amy, for me, was discovering the music for the first time. I’m now a believer.
I would estimate that ninety to ninety-five percent of the screen time in Amy is of Amy herself. Early on, we get hand-cam footage of our 18-year old star: surrounded by home-town friends, small pockets of acne on her face, gazing with an aggressive honesty so as not to betray her shyness on camera. She’s loud, she’s fun, she plays pool, she loves to sing. She’s already a force, but in a distinctly intimate way. We all know someone like Amy.
Most of us don’t know someone that can sing like her, though, and interspersed throughout the film, breaking up the rise-and-fall celebrity tale, are clips of Amy singing. The magic of these interludes is that we get to know Amy as an artist before we get to know her as a public figure, and when the inevitable begins to happen we’re aware that we’re watching one thing destroy the other. The musical bits have all been overlaid with the lyrics as she sings them, and they emerge on the screen one or two words at a time, just like the poems Amy’s first songs came from. As we peek into her personal life, the lyric’s direct, often very literal connection to events happening within it remain poetic, and reinforce the image of Amy as someone who, like all great artists, actually needs the music. Not just as an outlet for expression, but as a sanctuary from the expectations of the world, a place where authenticity isn’t just an asset, but a necessity.
Even though Amy makes up most of what we see, we hear a swath of people’s opinions on her, on her fame, her drugs, her husband, and her music. One can tell, watching and listening, that Amy’s downward spiral is a method of partly-intentional self-destruction. As she stops making new music, won’t leave Blake’s, her husband’s, side, and anesthetizes herself with drugs, she seems to be actually eliminating those parts of herself we see early on – all the youth, all it brings. The film ends up not being just a specific study of an artist, but also a nuanced one of fame as a force of erasure: a force that claims pieces of someone’s person– their talent, their body, their capacity for performance – and necessitates the discarding of whatever’s left, whatever is uninteresting or doesn’t possess immediate appeal. Unless someone thrives on fans, on glamour and attention, the relationship between celebrity and follower is almost wholly one-way, at times approaching parasitic.
It’s ironic that cameras destroyed Amy Winehouse, and almost all of this film, striving to portray her story honestly, is spent with her in the center of a lens. In that, there is a subtle anger here that we are made to feel; an anger directed at those who would raise someone up, claim a piece of them, and then watch, passively, as they fall apart.
Watching a young Amy sing is fascinating, because you notice the discrepancy between her voice and her effort – it’s so clearly easy for her. This is, perhaps, the most devastating part of her tale: what might she have become, had she mastered the force of her own artistry? Tony Bennett, after their duet of “Body and Soul,” tells us that Amy was a jazz singer, that jazz singers want small crowds, small clubs, that all the people and the noise and the lights just make things much harder. And, following her death, one of Amy’s producers and friends leaves us with “When you love someone, you should help play a part in protecting them. Especially if they’re a child.” They were both right.
The film is now playing.