Mainstream media usually accentuates one side of a story, which sometimes results in the portrayal of celebrities as cheaters, drug addicts and troublemakers. British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse was talented (and dare I say legendary) to the jazz scene. Although she did have problems with drug and alcohol use, the new documentary Amy (2015) shows there was much more to her than the issues headlines announced.
Amy gives audiences and fans a chance to hear the real story behind why she may have made certain decisions that ruined her career and reputation before her untimely death in 2011. The film is a profile on the artist, offering viewers an inside-look at the facts that weren’t always shared in the media during her ups and downs as a celebrity.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not one to follow celebrity drama. The Kardashians make me nauseous, and Miley Cyrus should stop trying so hard. But the documentary tells more than just the dirty details the tabloids left out. It shares the truth of a struggling yet brilliant young musician who faced many of the same situations any 27-year-old could face, such as eating disorders, heartbreak and family problems.
British filmmaker Asif Kapadia did an amazing job directing the film and collecting an array of interviews from different people in her life, including Winehouse’s old friends, bodyguards, music producers and family members. It truly feels like the movie gives a complete snapshot of what her life was really like.
One thing that I found particularly interesting about the film is the explanation of how closely her lyrics paralleled her life.
One of the lyrical stories I found most astonishing, although somewhat obvious, was when her father told her she didn’t need to go to rehab during the years she struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. She reflects on this stage of her life in her song “Rehab” when she sings “…and if my daddy thinks I’m fine.” Her father is interviewed on the subject. Although he says he regrets telling her not to go, a majority of his presence in her life seemed like it was similar to this situation: prioritizing his daughter’s musical success (and increasing cash flow) over her health and well-being.
If you are a true Amy Winehouse fan, don’t worry — the whole film isn’t about her life’s darker moments. Many of the opening scenes depict Winehouse before she unraveled: touring and recording her albums in high spirits. The film also includes actual footage of the first time she recorded “Back to Black” with record producer Mark Ronson.
In fact, this “Back to Black” scene, which was filmed back in 2006, made me just as emotional as her death discussed later on. According to Ronson’s interview, Winehouse wrote the lyrics to this track only an hour after hearing the melody he composed for the song. This later became the title track of her breakout album Back to Black, so it’s quite breathtaking to see her in a run-down studio so early in her career.
While it may not have been an intentional decision on the part of the filmmakers, the majority of the film is depressing. Winehouse starts off as a young, innocent girl who had no idea she could ever make a career out of singing. She deteriorates from the moment she becomes famous, and several of the last scenes show her at a point in her life when she is violently ill and sickly thin from bulimia and drug use.
One of the most shocking scenes was a clip from her last show in Belgrade, Serbia, in 2011. Winehouse was intoxicated to the point where she could barely sing, eventually sitting down on the stage and slurring her lyrics. The situation made headlines such as, “Amy Winehouse ‘too drunk to sing’ in Belgrade” from BBC News and, “They know that she’s no good… Amy Winehouse booed off stage in Serbia” from The Independent.
But the footage seems different in the context of this documentary. The film humanizes her; it evokes sympathy from the viewer. Rather than pass judgment, you feel bad. You understand how she got to that moment in time.
The saddest aspect of this film is that the audience knows how it ends before it even begins — with the death of Amy Winehouse. But the film salvages the musician’s name, despite the shaky last years of her musical career. Amy is a reminder of the good in Amy Winehouse — and as you’ll see after watching, there was so much good in the very life that consumed its own existence.