Amy Winehouse, Woody Allen

July 18, 2015

A few film notes:

"Amy," a documentary on the singer Amy Winehouse (2015),

Woody Allen, "Irrational man" (2015)
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"Amy," a 2015 Br. documentary (dir. Asif Kapadia), on the English pop/soul/jazz singer, Amy Winehouse (1983-2011).

Amy Winehouse was an extraordinary talent, a natural, an original. She was recognized as the preeminent vocal talent of her generation. She was Jewish, which is nowhere emphasized in the film (except at her funeral) but one intuits that it had some importance in her life. Her family was working class/lower middle class, her accent Southgate inner-city London. But she was intrinsically a cosmopolitan, in search of the world at large. She died abruptly at age 27 from alcohol poisoning, after years of heavy drugs and bulimia as well. Some say the film is brilliant. I think Amy Winehouse is brilliant and the film is a blur, built out of family home movies from childhood on and violently intrusive videos of her private life and stage performances as she flamed out over a period of several years. Someone was taking videotape of her even in the worst of circumstances, as she laid on the floor, drugged and/or drunk in helpless or let-me-alone mode. This is the theme of the film: at bottom, Amy Winehouse, in search of life's potential and its thrills, was exploited by others, even her adored father, as she became famous and produced large amounts of money for a typical crowd of profiteers and hangers-on. She was responsible for her own choices (as we say today), i.e. for the drugs and booze and bad relationships, yet no one protected her within the world of celebrity and greed that she was unprepared for. One could cite Judy Garland, Whitney Houston and others, but it's a wrong approach to think of her as another interesting case of a certain category. What's important is she herself: the raw talent, tamed and disciplined by its possessor, the intrinsic power of her voice and understanding of musicality, and the youth, the flourishing, the resilience, so long as it lasted, and then the memory of a destiny unfulfilled. Amy Winehouse was on the way from a dynamite pop singer to becoming (as Tony Bennett says in the film) a jazz singer for all time. As a musician, I was immediately touched by Amy Winehouse in performance.

For those interested in the evolution of the culture, this film is worth a lot. (Put it with the Nina Simone documentary that I mentioned before.) For those less interested, at least Youtube the video of the Tony Bennett/Amy Winehouse duet, "Body and soul," where she's obviously singing through the drugs. It's one of those moments that makes you glad to be alive. Like July Garland singing "The man that got away," or Lena Horne doing "Stormy weather."

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Woody Allen, "Irrational Man" -

Play it again, Woody, and he does. One more Woody-depicting-Woody script with a little different plot than Upper West Side Manhattan. A College philosophy professor loaded with controversial reputation, enormous existential dread, an alcohol problem, arrives at a small liberal arts college near Providence (not Amherst), takes up with a student. There's a fair amount of Sartre, Heidegger, the Universe-has-no-meaning ("absurd") -- therefore, is a life based in moral values at all possible? Will the world-weary professor ever recapture his youthful moral engagement ( l'intellectuel engagé ) or will he end up defeated, without answers to Life's Great Questions? The professor makes a leap of existential faith, makes a radical choice, a murder, whose purpose is to help someone else. He feels free, liberated, flourishing, and he goes through with the dirty deed. In other words, this is another Woody-spin on Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment," in which the Woody-character is a New England (or, really, as usual, once again, Manhattan's Upper West Side) version of Raskolnikov. Dostoevsky, a Christian, wrote that, 'If God doesn't exist, then anything goes, everything is permitted'. Existentialism wrestles with this question as its raison d'être.