Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
Amy: The Winehouse Documentary
Winehouse’s life was short but remarkably well documented. That would certainly
help a filmmaker crafting a posthumous profile, but it was much less fortunate
for her. Despite the somewhat dubious objections of her family, a sensitive yet
cautionary portrait of gifted artist overwhelmed by fame emerges in Asif
Kapadia’s Amy (trailer here), which opens this
Friday in New York.
Winehouse loved jazz and had the chops to sing it. If she had made a career of
interpreting standards in moderate sized jazz clubs for a small but devoted
following, she probably would have lived a much longer and happier life.
Unfortunately, her talent was so conspicuous, she became a world famous pop
star, but she was profoundly uncomfortable with much of the attention that
followed. It is Winehouse whom we see throughout the film, second by second, as
her friends and associates speak over archival footage and still photos,
including performances from the period before her tragic fame.
of the footage of the promising pre-celebrity Winehouse was supplied by her friend
and original manager, Nick Shymansky. Despite original backing from the
Winehouse family and estate, Kapadia’s film largely reflects the perspective of
Shymansky and Winehouse’s lifelong friends, Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert. Winehouse’s
father Mitchel has made no secret of his objections, but through his position
at the Winehouse position, he can always tell his side of the story to a Guardian scribe whenever he wants. In
contrast, the working class Ashby and Gilbert do not have the same access to
media. Their only stake in this story was the loss of their dear friend. In
fact, they had a deep distrust of the media, which Kapadia labored to overcome.
Yet, that is precisely why their stories have such impact and credibility.
general trajectory of Winehouse’s life is fairly well known: precocious talent gives
rise to not-exactly overnight fame, which in turn leads to widely reported
struggles with drugs and alcohol. By far, the most damning incident in the film
involves Mitchel Winehouse undermining her friends’ early intervention, telling
her she really had no need of rehab. While he has subsequently taken pains to
argue his opinion eventually changed on that score, Shymansky points out this
was a lost opportunity to get Winehouse treatment, before the entire world
wanted a piece of her and the media hounded her every step. Mr. Winehouse can
object all he likes, but the significance of the moment is inescapable.
it happens, Mr. Winehouse is not the only member of her inner circle upset with
their treatment in Kapadia’s film. Her second (and final) manager Raye Cosbert
also takes issue with suggestions his was exploitative or at least insensitive
to Amy Winehouse’s emotional turmoil. Whether that is fair or not, it seems
clear from the film he could only relate to her as a pop act rather than the
jazz artist she initially set out to be. Had he better understood her, he could
have charted a career course that better appealed to her sensibilities.
the sequence of Winehouse recording a duet of “Body and Soul” with Tony Bennett
has received disproportionate press attention. Its inclusion in Amy certainly makes sense, but it is
actually old news, having previously appeared in Unjoo Moon’s The Zen of Bennett (maybe some of our
colleagues do not screen as extensively as they should). Regardless, the
overall effect of Kapadia’s Amy is utterly
devastating. It is a heartbreakingly intimate film that makes viewers feel like
they are peering into her damaged psyche.
Although it might be controversial in some
quarters, Kapadia deserves credit for portraying some figures in villainous terms
rather than playing it safe. Editor Chris King also does extraordinary work
combining the voluminous images into a powerful narrative. As a result, Kapadia’s
Amy is a moving document of a gifted
performer whose life was far sadder and briefer that it should have been. Highly
recommended, Amy opens this Friday
(7/3) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine and the AMC Loews Lincoln Square.
Labels: Amy Winehouse, Documentary