I was both fascinated and nervous of seeing the Amy Winehouse movie because while appreciated that Amy was an important artist in her short life, I confess to never being a massive fan as Jazz really is not my music. Then again – every now and then I would see an acoustic version of a classic track performed late at night on the BBC or even Valerie by the Zutons and I would think, “that is a special talent”.
She seemed to explode onto the music scene, mainstream consciousness and already damaged and fragile persona that proceeded to unravel, while the world watched in awe and unconsciously exploited in equal measure (later on as the film portrays that exploitation was blatant and pretty cruel). This is all bourn out by the film in a tale that is definitely defined clearly as pre/post fame.
The director Asif Kapadia obviously felt an intense fascination with Amy and the relationships she had alongside her music. There feels to be an obvious appreciation of the subject (Amy) and a strong feeling that this is authentic film making. It seems (as much as you can tell) to be objective and inquisitive about the person underneath the hype and how intrinsically she seemed to be tied to her choice of artistic expression.
On release much was made of Amy’s family’s discomfort of certain aspects of the film – this seems to be both an understandable defensiveness (as it must be hard to watch a loved one suffer as she unquestionably did) and a certain amount of guilt that she could not be saved. Anyone who played any part in her personal life must have wished things could have been different – it must be hell for a family to see this again.
The film was made following 20 months of editing that took 3 years. I presents what feels like a true portrait of the artist/person and is incredibly moving. Amy’s friends obviously felt comfortable sharing early footage where Amy seemed to enjoy the bantering, chummy intimacy of the camcorder where she was free in cars and bars to show off to her friends, the world was not watching at this point and it shows.
In fact it does come across that fame seemed to be her key to acceptance from her father who she seemed to get back when her fame kicked in, she obviously idolised him and loved her family – but it is her friends who got very obvious affection and in times of intense stress seemed to be a surrogate family.
Another thing that stands out is that all her personal experiences fuelled Amy the songwriter and she used so much of her life as inspiration, that it is very hard not to believe anything but the words and music that she blisteringly performed. When she sang – you could feel the betrayal, adultery, confusion and unrequited love – how could we not believe that when she was told to go to rehab, her dad did in fact say “no” – he may have changed his mind but I would swear that conversation did happen. Not going to rehab at a particular moment was a defining moment both for the album and tragically her life.
It feels very much that Amy’s early friends must have trusted the film for the first section to even have been possible. Nick Shymanski in particular (her friend and first manager) must have been won over as his input makes this something special.
What struck me the most was how interested and fascinated Amy was with music, Jazz and telling the truth. She probably would have needed little else but a small audience and some gentle appreciation. Being propelled head first into the intrusion, image obsession and cruelty of the paparazzi was not ideal and her love for Blake Fielder-Civil may have been the catalyst to her forgetting that it was unreal, he publically flaunted his control and influence on her.
The paparazzi and cruel jibes that started to appear in the media are obviously vile in retrospect but I always believed that she was ill and too thin from the first publicity shots that appeared for Back to Black. She was feted as perfect – talented and thin, but you can be too thin – yet this was never mentioned while she was on the rise. It seemed that she believed the hype and the boyfriend. I always loved her more natural hair and when she looked like the clothes choices might have been hers.
When the beehive and the heavy eye-make up got cartoonish, she looked lost.
Little has been made of the Terry Richardson photo-shoot in the film but I thought it was disgusting – it glamorised her skeletal body in underwear and self harming tendencies. It also promoted Blake to get into the limelight – a far crueller joke than any chat show host could crack.
The second part of the film highlights her inability to escape the forces that conspired to scupper any attempt at recovery. The media coverage was alarming as was her fathers adoption of her persona to launch a secondary Winehouse career (his) as commented on my Amy herself and as many noticed themselves when she was still alive. She was never allowed to escape the songs that had made her famous but which, in time, tied her to a period she wanted to evolve from.
In the end it would seem that she was a natural singer but not a natural performer. The most compelling section of the second half of the film is the duet with her hero Tony Bennett. She is chronically star struck in his presence and immensely critical of her astounding vocal performance that increases in scale as she relaxes into the company, she seems to come alive again.
In the end – it was the 85 year old Bennett who perfectly demonstrated in that room, in front of those microphones how Amy should have been treated. He spoke to her with respect and encouragement that resulted in an individual session that was full of warmth, soul and interpretation that filled me with awe.
Goodbye Amy, now you can rest knowing that we have seen the best and worst and that you have escaped the life that would always have got you in the end – you were too fragile for that kind of pressure. God bless your true friends who clearly never exploited or abandoned you.