This is the verbatim conversation Tim McEown and I had on July 23, 2011:
Me: Amy Winehouse died.
Me: Rescuing kittens from a burning building. How do you think?
Tim: Wouldn’t that have been awesome though? Then she’d be remembered as a hero.
Me: Instead of a cliché.
Yes, that was cold. But, to be fair, no one was surprised by the death of Amy Winehouse. She was a brilliant young singer/songwriter blessed with a soulful voice—and it just so happened that her immense talents were matched by her inner demons. It’s a story as old as pop music itself: a troubled singer becomes an overnight sensation, can’t handle the pressure, and succumbs to drugs, alcohol, unhealthy relationships, and eventually dies too young.
We’ve seen the scenario played out so many times – Jimi, Janis, Jim, Kurt, etc.– that it’s almost impossible to feel much more than a passing, “damn, what a waste”, before clicking on to the next story. In his documentary, Amy, director Asif Kapadia manages to strip away the layers of what the public knew of Amy Winehouse – the bruises, the streaked makeup, the slurring hot mess – to show a sweet, witty, and remarkably self-aware woman.
Kapadia amassed an exhausting amount of footage – candid home movies, interviews, live performances – and opens his film in 1998. A 14 year-old Amy sings “Happy Birthday” while twirling a lollipop. Her gift is undeniable. Kapadia manipulates the footage, zooming in, slowing it down, and show us how she grew into such a confident performer. We see her notebooks and watch her lyrics appear in cursive while she sings them. The interviews with her friends, family, bodyguards, managers, and ex are all audio tracks, which keeps the focus entirely on Amy. Kapadia’s approach is fully aware of the irony behind the camera’s fascination with her, and how it became an instrument of both her rise and fall.
And while we’re on the subject of irony, “Rehab”:..
You were Amy’s biggest hit. But you were also the albatross around her neck. A catchy, Phil Spector-inspired chastisement to the doubters in her life, you skyrocketed her to fame with a cheeky hook that in retrospect seems like a cry for help. “They tried to make me go to rehab but I said no, no, no.” Amy sings you in one of the film’s best montages: on Leno, on Letterman, on increasingly larger stages, on the car radio in New York City. This could have been the sappy VH1 Behind the Music-style crescendo, the rising star sequence that leads to the overwrought “and then the unthinkable happened”-moment. But Kapadia doesn’t go there. As he did so masterfully in his documentary about Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna, Kapadia manages the feat of actually making us forget, at least momentarily, that Amy (and Senna) died.
Externally, the Paparazzi pursued Amy relentlessly, stalking her at literally every turn. Internally, she faced constant pressure to keep performing despite her health being at risk from both addiction and years of bulimia. After nearly OD-ing, Amy and her husband Blake’s Sid & Nancy-like desire to come off drugs together highlights how co-dependent they were. At one point during a tenuous attempt at recovery, Blake teasingly goads her to change your lyrics, and she responds, weakly: “I don’t really mind it here.”
Later, it becomes clear that your lyrics, “I ain’t got the time, and if my daddy thinks I’m fine,” aren’t just brassy pop sentiment—Mitch, her dad, goes so far as to stalk her for his own documentary, bringing a TV crew to St. Lucia where she has been trying to clean up. It becomes increasingly uncomfortable to watch Amy struggle to please everyone but herself.
These scenes, and those of her barely able to remember your lyrics while swaying onstage, are stomach churning. Because by now we’ve seen the real Amy. The one who was devilishly funny and wise beyond her years. The one who loved her friends and family. The one who loved making music, and the one who was frightened of becoming famous because she knew what it would do to her.
Kapadia shows us the Amy behind the trainwreck tabloid escapades. She becomes someone we want to root for. And not just because of her million dollar pipes. Amy is gutting because it isn’t the story of yet another star gone too soon; her struggle with mental illness and recovery was very real, and no less difficult because of her celebrity. Addiction doesn’t care if you’re famous.
You were Amy’s biggest song but you certainly weren’t her best. Still, you will live on, mostly as a macabre joke sung by a reluctant pop star. But Amy reminds us that Amy wasn’t a punchline. She was a person.