“Amy”: Lost in the Stars
Too much, too soon.
Amy, director Asif Kapadia’s documentary about the sadly late, undeniably great Amy Winehouse, opens with a prophetic scene of a teenage Winehouse singing a campy, Marilyn Monroe-esque version of “Happy Birthday,’’ with her lifelong school chums Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert. Like Monroe, she flew high, into the unyielding eye of “fame’’ – a meaningless category that traps the unwary and tender-hearted only to spit them out, waiting for the next victim.
The lighthearted romp with her girlfriends is followed by a clip of Winehouse singing “Moon River’’ with the U.K.’s National Youth Orchestra, and it’s quickly apparent that she has the gift. In a different time, Winehouse’s inspired mash-up of jazz, girl group greatness, standards, and her own torchy poems set to music would have set her on a path to performances in smoky nightclubs – something that Winehouse makes dead clear she would have happily embraced. But it was not to be. The bitch Goddess of Success had other things in mind for her, and as the film makes clear, in this case, Success was really a bitch.
We all know how this story ends. It’s a tale as old as time, certainly as old as rock and roll. It’s hard to watch Amy’ without feeling at some level like a voyeur, despite the filmmakers’ scrupulous dispassion and obvious love for their subject.
As a record company executive says in the movie, she was a very old soul in a very young body. It’s thrilling to watch her scat, bend notes, and audition almost effortlessly as the North London Jewish girl who knew she had the goods, even if she wasn’t quite sure what to do with them. (It’s also fun to watch her sending up the rituals of stardom, enduring banal comparisons with Dido at an early press conference with obvious scorn and sarcasm. Who needs Johnny Rotten?)
The film shows sequences and interviews with her former manager, Nick Shmansky. Shamanksy nurtured her career, laughed at her jokes, supported her through pre-performance jitters, and then took the tough step of separating himself when she refused to take him up on his repeated offers to help her get off her chemical romance.
Every fairy tale needs villains, though, and there’s no shortage of them here.
Just to dispose of him first, there’s Winehouse’s much, and justly, maligned ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, a thoroughly unlikeable, narcissistic git, who strides through her life with a smirk and a stupid, hipster hat – Sporting Life without the charm – dispensing happy dust and bad vibes.
She deserved so much better. The only section of the film where I totally lost it was watching her record a duet of “Body and Soul,’’ with Tony Bennett, who is totally patient and forgiving of her stage-fright at singing with an idol. It’s the kind of mentorship and unselfish support she needed, and of which she found too little.
That brings us to the other cad of this sad piece: Mitch Winehouse, who left Amy to the care of her mother, Janis. Janis acknowledges she couldn’t handle her headstrong daughter. Mitch, unsurprisingly, takes issue with the movie, which shows him saying she didn’t need to be admitted into rehab, enables her co-dependency with Fielder-Civil, basks in reflected glory at awards ceremonies as his daughter spirals downward, and brings along camera crews and audios to a Caribbean retreat where she has ostensibly gone to get straight.
I saw the documentary in conjunction with an exhibition organized by the Jewish Museum in London, titled Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait. That exhibit reflects her family roots and eschews the lurid aspects of her trajectory. It’s a sweet show that includes fond memories from her older brother, Alex, whom she was very close to. And it includes her application to the Sylvia Young Theatre School in London. She managed to get accepted there, and of course, engineered her exit. It includes a video of a performance while she was at the school – which already showed the nascent artist’s spark – and memorabilia like her album covers and other soul, jazz, and girl group influences, as well was a precocious playlist that prefigures her later work.
There’s a companion exhibit, titled You Know I’m No Good, which features artists’ responses to Winehouse’s legacy. Among them is a Jennie Ottinger piece featuring black artists who did not reach Winehouse’s level of commercial success, and the piece accuses her of cultural appropriation. The list of white artists influenced by black culture is a long one, including no less than Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, and Eminem. At least in this case, Winehouse’s channeling of black music was done with love, respect, and unique style, so I felt the Ottinger piece was piling on.
Nonteheless, it’s nice to see the sweeter side of Winehouse acknowledged. The exhibit includes her scrapbook of snapshots, which she returned to with other family members. The acknowledgement of her Jewish roots, while not essential to her identity, hint of at least one aspect of her undoubted soul.
Let’s not sugarcoat things, though. As wonderful as it is to see Amy Winehouse the performer, I’m sure that in real life she could be a nightmare, as she succumbed to demons outside her control. No platitudes about addiction, artistic suffering, or the romance of life on the road, can make up for the loss.
Towards the end of the movie, her bodyguard recalls her telling him she would give it all up – fame, the whole damn thing – to go through life without being hassled, without flashing cameras documenting every sorrowful move.
But she was a pure spirit. You just have to hear the music to know that. That’s what should be remembered, in our hearts and souls. The girl with the beehive hair knew how to sing a tune that could sting.