Amy Winehouse’s tragically short life is a cautionary show business tale to say the least. She was young and talented with undeniable star quality, and she was lucky enough to be elevated to stardom within a few years, but, sadly, she was not prepared well for the price of fame and success she suddenly attained. As she desperately tried to hold onto her position, she only got her life and career into more troubles as struggling with her personal demons, and she eventually died on July 23rd, 2011.
Through the mix of various archival footage clips peppered with the interview recordings from many different people who knew or worked with her, Asif Kapadia’s documentary film “Amy” looks closely into Winehouse’s life and career. She was from a Jewish family of a North London neighbourhood, and everyone around her knew that she would be something because of her immense musical talent. Not long after she fantastically sang “Moon River” while backed by the National Jazz Orchestra in 2001, she took the first step of her professional music career, and she already did her promotional tour in 2003.
She had right persons to lift her up to the next stages waiting for her. Her manager Nick Shymansky was loyal and supportive like a good friend, and renowned music producer Salaam Remi was also dependable with his steady support of her talent. Like other interviewees personally close to Winehouse, both Symansky and Remi fondly remember how much Winehouse impressed them with her talent as well as her personality, and we can clearly see that from several video clips showing her performances. She was bright, lively, and charming like a free spirit, and she was natural on the stage with her deep, soulful vocals while showing her considerable potentials as a jazz singer.
After her first album “Frank” was released in 2003, her career was accelerated further with dizzying speed. When her second album “Back to Black” came out in 2006, it virtually catapulted her into the status of international pop star. Besides more positive domestic responses, that album was a huge hit outside UK, and she also received no less than five awards at the 2008 Grammy Awards ceremony, which she did not attend but instead watched it on TV along with her parents, friends, and colleagues in London. When she learned she had just won over other prominent nominees including Beyoncé, Jay Z, and Justin Timberlake, she could not be possibly more excited, and that was definitely the highpoint of her life.
But, as she went up and up, her personal problems also became bigger and bigger. Even during the early stage of her career, Winehouse already had an addiction problem besides her chronic bulimia, and Symansky regrettably admits that he and others could have intervened in her problematic situation earlier. We see her often holding a drink in her hand, and we also hear about one unpleasant episode about how she had one of her bad days with bulimia during one recording session.
She surely knew she had problems, and she really needed some private time and space of her own to pull up herself, but that was the last thing she could afford as a new rising star hounded by paparazzi in every day of her life. Once her addiction problem was widely reported after her life-threatening overdose incident in 2007, it quickly became a new big gossip to devour, and her chance of rehabilitation accordingly became slimmer. If she had been just a mildly successful artist or managed to keep her addiction problem private, she might have been helped by that humble anonymity and honesty of AA meeting, but she only found herself checking into a rehabilitation center right in front of a herd of reporters and photographers.
Furthermore, she had a tumultuous personal relationship with a wild party boy named Blake Fielder, who also had a serious addiction problem just like her. While they were really in love with each other during their better days, they also hopelessly drove each other into the bottom of addiction as scratching at each other, and that became another lucrative source for gossip reporters, as shown by one cringe-inducing photograph capturing Winehouse and Fielder shortly after one of their worst moments. After Fielder was imprisoned in 2008, Winehouse went down further, and we get another ghastly moment showing her hitting another bottom.
She often had her father Mitch around her, but, as far as we can see from how he is presented in the documentary, he was not much of help to his daughter either. Although he might care about his daughter, he also wanted to get a fair share of spotlight just like Fielder, and that negative aspect of his is clearly shown when the documentary shows an embarrassing footage clip of Mitch visiting his daughter’s vacation place along with a camera crew, which was the last thing she needed at that point (While he was initially cooperative like other interviewees during the production, Mitch Winehouse later expressed his objection against the documentary).
Things did not look wholly bad for a while with a few bright moments, but then Winehouse continued her endless downward spiral. After her productive collaboration with her lifelong idol Tony Bennett (how he gently handled his very insecure junior during their recording session is one of the most poignant moments in the documentary), she began to crumble down even on the stage, and that led to a painful breakdown during the concert held in Belgrade not long before her eventual death. Andrew Morris, who was her personal bodyguard and was also one of a few people she could lean on, describes the day when he found her dead body, and we can only imagine that devastating moment as listening to his phlegmatic description.
As he did in his previous work “Senna” (2010), the director Asif Kapadia steps back while letting the story be told through his interviewees and Winehouse herself, and he did an impressive visual job of presenting her best and worst times. I must point out that the documentary is very uncomfortable to watch at several points with Winehouse being shown through countless photographs and videos shot by those heartless paparazzi, but it handles its subject with honesty and respect, and the result is a penetrating and heartbreaking portrayal of one talented musician who left us too early. It is really sad to think about how much she could achieve more – and how she could be wiser to deal with her troubles as learning through more time and experience.