I only met British singer Amy Winehouse once...some seven or eight year ago, backstage at the Grammy Awards here in Los Angeles. When I was introduced to her as the producer of a movie about Billie Holiday, she turned to me and said that she idolized Billie. My memory is vague but I think she said something like, "I am Billie Holiday." Truer words were never spoken. This Friday afternoon, I went to the opening of a searing, sad and sensational documentary, AMY, on the life of Amy Winehouse by a director named Asif Kapadia. I had seen a documentary he did a few years ago called Seena, about a Brazilian Formula one race car driver, and remember it as being very good, done in an unusual style. So I went to AMC 15 in Century City to see what he had done with this life story. (Incidentally, the people at AMC have revamped their pre-feature programming and there are no more irritating bouncing bubbles....now they do 20 minutes of very good, interesting commercials, TV and movie previews, all seen on that brilliantly large screen.) AMY is done with no actual narration or current video interviews....but rather it uses actual archival dialogue and music over hundreds of movie clips and photos, with many of the lyrics printed on the screen.....a very satisfying technique for a documentary like this. The film opens with Amy singing Henry Mancini's thrilling Moon River. Then we see a choppy film clip of a 14-year old Amy attending a birthday party.....and the moment she opens her mouth to sing Happy Birthday you sit up and realize that this is a some powerful voice. I have to tell you, whenever she sings she is almost insanely great. Every time. Where it came from I can only guess. I kept thinking to myself that yes, she does often sound like Billie Holiday at her best. She must have listened to Lady Day's albums over and over to get that particular phrasing and intonation. And lots of Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington too. It's not told chronologically so we move from events during her later life back and forth to her growing up. You smile as you watch her progress and become a young woman with an amazing talent. Then as the film advances it becomes darker, and the smile leaves your face. By the end of the picture, you will have tears....or at least I did. As someone said, she was such a mess for so long that it was a foregone conclusion when she died of alcohol poisoning in 2011 at the early age of 27, the same age that so many others died..Kurt Copain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison. But the director has been quoted as saying: "She was really funny. Intelligent. Beautiful. Amazing eyes. You just think, she was so cool."
Are there villains in this piece....in this life? Yes, I personally think so, although the movie doesn't reach a definitive conclusion. One was her lover-husband-ex, Blake Fielder-Civil, a snotty sick youth whom she loved with an insane passion all her life. He turned her on to soft (cocaine) and then hard (heroin) drugs. Her obnoxious porky father, Mitch Winehouse, who had virtually abandoned her and her mom when she was young but came back into her life with a vengeance when money was to be made, and exploited her until her death...and beyond. He followed her to St. Lucia when she went there to cleanse herself, but brought a camera crew with him. (He gave his approval and cooperation in the making of the film but now seems to be unhappy with it. Of course.) There was a moment early on when he could have sent her to substance-and- bulimia intervention and instead said it wasn't needed, so go back to work. Yes, I know....it's a story we have seen before so many times, a genius talent who burns brightly for a brief period of time and then burns out with alcohol and/or drugs. Piaf, Hank Williams, Presley, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison...it is so endless and so sad. By the end of the film I felt intimately involved with her life...and death...and I was emotionally drained. There are also good guys, a manager and then former manager, Nick Shymansky, who tried to control her and donated hundreds of hours of home videos to the director. The executors of her estate, the music rights guys, all made it a reality. Ever-present is a predatory paparazzi ready to poince on any and every moment, public and private. Much of their footage was bought for this film. The clicking of cameras is a soundtrack steady.
We follow the journey of an unstable, lonely but blessed young Jewish girl from North London as she listens to her jazz greats and then James Taylor and Carol King, all the while her rich soaring voice came forth fully born from a fragile body. We see the early connections with record executives, other musicians, the first trappings of fame. Fueled first by booze and then by drugs, she soars to celebrity and fame on the wings of...what? Always the voice is there, so rich and powerful that you sit back and listen with wonder as you shrivel in fear. But never forget, Amy was always her own woman...you will realize that as you read her lyrics which are printed on screen in many numbers as she vocalizes, often transitioned from poems written when young. As her fame grew, she became even more confused and fearful about what is transpiring.....her hip-hop friend Mos Def tell us that she once asked him, "What am I supposed to do in this space?" And we hear her say plaintfully, "I don't think I can handle it,. I'll probably go mad." As someone is quoted: A very old soul in a very young body.
There were only two full albums....the early-on jazz-infused 2003 Frank and the Grammy-award winning Back to Black in 2006, which promoted her to fame. Frank details her relationship with an older man and we hear and see on screen the lyrics: "You should be stronger than me/You've been here seven years longer than me/Don't you know you supposed to be the man/Not pale in comparison to who you think I am." Then we see the actual recording of her huge hit, Rehab, a cry for help. ("I ain't got the time, and my daddy thinks I'm fine.") Six Grammy awards resulted.
Most glorious is her duet interaction with Tony Bennett just a few months before she died.. We see her arrive at their recording session so insecure she can't begin. He reassures her and they join voices in a glorious rendition of "Body and Soul." For this moment she is a pure spirit, all about the music. Unfortunately, not long enough.
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