AMY Review: Body and Soul
There’s this thing called the “27 Club.” The notion of it began when musicians Brian Jones (The Rolling Stones), Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison all died between 1969 and 1971, each at age 27 when they passed. While other musicians of some repute died at 27, both before (Robert Johnson, 1938) and after (Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1988), none had the star-power of those four until 27-year-old Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) died in 1994. According to Wikipedia, there are 50 musicians in total who belong to this most peculiar club. However, most of them did not have the star-power of one of the club’s most recent members. Amy Winehouse is that member, and her story is exhaustively captured in Amy, from documentarian Asif Kapadia.
Winehouse’s story is a familiar one – one of dazzling talent never fully realized, one of a life never completely lived. As a young girl, the London native enjoyed (and excelled at) singing, but was disinterested in modern pop music, instead gravitating towards jazz from the likes of her idol, Tony Bennett. A unique style and a unique sound, coupled with the ever-necessary lucky breaks and hard work, led to rapid popularity and success for the songstress. But with that popularity and success came the glaring light of fame, the vast hollow of loneliness, and a series of bad decisions allowed (and enabled) by people afraid to say NO to their gravy train. After numerous spins through the revolving door of rehab, Winehouse’s body, weakened not only by substance abuse but a long battle with bulimia, finally gave in. The singer died in 2011.
While a rock-n-roll fable with an unhappy ending might be familiar, and while Kapadia makes sure to hit all the points in Winehouse’s life, the presentation of her story in Amy is nothing like your average bio-doc. Kapadia mines exhaustive video footage of Winehouse’s life … particularly her pre-fame life, so much of which was captured on camera. This allows the director to do more than just present Winehouse’s life – he is able to fully immerse you in it, which is most impactful in more mundane moments – hanging out at home, goofing off, sleeping in a car, etc. And because it’s mostly a linear presentation, you feel like you are growing up with Winehouse.
Kapadia is also shrewd to include clips of comments from, or moments with, a young Winehouse that will foreshadow her problems with substance abuse and bulimia. These moments are never exploited. They fit naturally into the narrative and when Winehouse’s later life devolves (and devolves again), you have that sense of recall, of looking back at small things you had “lived through” with younger Winehouse and realize you were watching her slow-spiral in real-time and there was nothing you could do about it.
Another interesting creative approach by Kapadia is his use of observations from third-parties (aka friends, family, and record executives … aka talking heads). With one exception, these soundbites are audio-only, which achieves two important effects. First, it gives the impression everything was recorded specifically for the film, adding to the constant sense that “you are there” (although it’s probable that at least some sound was culled from previous sources). Second, audio-only contributions keep the visual focus, thus the flow of the film, on Winehouse. That lone exception is Tony Bennett, although his comment is brief and touching. In fact, Bennett’s inclusion actually spotlights another great creative choice: there are no celebrity appearances in this film. Other than stock footage that includes Winehouse with the rich and famous (and that one Bennett bit), there is no one of tabloid consequence speaking about Winehouse (or trying to make the moment about themselves).
With a life as tumultuous as Winehouse’s became, there is going to be blame to assign to those who were closest to her – not direct blame for her death per se, but blame for enabling her lifestyle, exploiting her fame, or both. Kapadia makes it clear who he thinks is culpable in her death, and while his assertions might be true, it’s the one area of the film that smacks of being biased. (This might explain why, despite so much footage of a younger Winehouse, there is almost nothing from her early childhood years, and why her mother isn’t prominent in the tale.)
Of course, a documentary about Amy Winehouse wouldn’t be complete without her music, and there is plenty of it here. Again, Kapadia’s use of archival footage from Winehouse’s early years is excellent. As her story progresses, and those early club dates grow to become major concerts, there is a terrific sense of how Winehouse matures as an artist, particularly a singer. It’s a great complement to that “you are there” approach, as it becomes almost an exercise in binge-listening to her music. I experienced something like this once before when I listened to a good chunk of Frank Sinatra‘s early discography in chronological order and over a relatively short period of time. Hearing a singer this way affords a unique learning opportunity to listen to to a singer grow. I caught that same sense here. Winehouse’s lyric delivery becomes more pointed with time, but more importantly, she understands how to better leverage those moments when the chart has no lyrics – either by extending vocals into those open spaces or toying with how the music is written. It’s terrific jazz delivery all the way, and Bennett later pays her an incredible compliment relative to that.
(Kapadia also includes onscreen lyrics, quite artistically added, as some of Winehouse’s enunciation can be a challenge, even to those familiar with her work.)
There is one moment in the film more touching than any other. The setting is the 2008 Grammys and among several other awards, she is up for Record of the Year. She’s not present at the awards show but is instead in London, performing an intimate concert. She has stopped her show in anticipation of the winner being announced on TV (with her reaction being beamed back to LA via satellite). The presenters of the award are Natalie Cole and Bennett, and when they are announced, Winehouse is star-struck at the site of her idol. She even shares this excitement with her audience (who doesn’t appear to paying too much mind). “Guys, guys … it’s Tony Bennett.” Winehouse, who had recently gained control of her demons (at least temporarily), has that youthful gleam, that excitement, that wonder, in her eyes. When she wins the award, she’s dumbstruck. I remember the Grammy moment, but being able to re-watch it from her side makes it that much more magical. Sadly, what Winehouse is purported to have said soon after that moment is devastating, and makes her ultimate demise that much more sad, punctuating with regret a life of success and excess.
Amy hits all the points you want a musical-themed bio-doc to hit, from a future star’s obscurity to her struggles to her successes to her music to her face on the cover of Rolling Stone. All of that is special enough. But it’s how those points are hit, how her story is told, that makes watching Amy Winehouse’s life story an exercise in living her life by her side. That’s beyond special.