Kapadia skillfully documents this heartbreaking journeyEntertainment News, Movie Review, Section 4A Thursday, August 6th, 2015
There were so many terrible things about Amy Winehouse’s death in 2011 at the age of 27. She was arguably the greatest singer of her generation, having produced two instantly classic albums, the jazz album Frank (2003) and the throwback soul album Back to Black (2006). Winehouse’s death was an artistic tragedy for popular music and its fans. More importantly, it was horrifying, if unsurprising, for the family and friends who adored the magnetic, spectacular, deeply troubled Winehouse. Less importantly, but particularly troubling for me, was how the worst people in the world used Winehouse’s death to express their misogyny, pathological lack of empathy and judgmental derision for addicts.
I want those people, and I want George Lopez, Jay Leno, and every other comedian who mocked Winehouse’s troubles, to see Amy, Asif Kapadia’s excellent and disturbing documentary about Winehouse’s life. Composed entirely of home movies, television video and voice-over of interviewed friends and family, Amy starts with her discovery at 16 by an assistant at 19, the company that created Pop Idol and American Idol and managed its contestants, to her death 11 years later of alcohol poisoning, from Jewish North London adolescence to international super stardom.
At first, it was just her preternaturally skilled jazz singing – deep, rich, pyrotechnic – that caught the attention of recording executives, but then producers encouraged her to set her emotionally raw poetry to music, and her songwriting became as lauded as her voice. Her first album Frank, with its lead single “Stronger Than Me,” was a critical smash, and her follow up, written mostly about her tempestuous and chemically enhanced relationship with Blake Fielder was a cultural touchstone. The first single, “Rehab,” which was about the attempt to get her to seek help for her addictions (“No, No, No”), was massive, winning her Record of the Year at the Grammys. The footage of Winehouse laying down the vocal track to the album’s title song is awe-inspiring.
While her career was exploding, Winehouse became less and less stable. Chronically depressed as a teenager, which she blames on her parents’ divorce, she became bulimic and then self-medicated with alcohol and pot; when she was with Fielder, she added powder and crack cocaine, as well as heroin. Kapadia’s argument seems to be that the pressure of fame, along with the pressures of her parasitic father Mitch, profit-focused second manager Raye Cosbert, and codependent husband Fielder, drew out the worst of Winehouse’s dark impulses. Her attempts at rehab failed miserably, and not only because the people who profited from her allowed them to.
Kapadia skillfully edits the footage and the interviews, which include extensive commentary from her friends, compatriots and Fielder. Most of this is done without trickery, except for how he washes out the video of the paparazzi swarms to turn the camera flashes into near-white outs. The effect is haunting. It makes the scenes no more artful, but it is blinding in the theater, allowing the viewer to experience, just slightly, how terrifying and disorientating fame can be.
Directed by Asif Kapadia
Featuring Amy Winehouse, Blake Fielder, Juliet Ashby
At Landmark Hillcrest
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