Above all my childhood aspirations and fantasies, I was most fascinated with becoming a famous singer. As a Diva, I, of course, study the vocal arts and invest much time listening to the great voices of our time. I’m a sucker for a perfect voice, one with beautiful clarity, tone, resonance, and control. Voices like Barbara Streisand, Lara Fabian, Joan Sutherland, Shirley Bassey, and Whitney Houston fill my playlists.
I distinctly remember stumbling along a YouTube video years back, of an altogether unique voice. This powerful sound came from a then little known jazzy talent, Amy Winehouse, tearing up an original piece titled “Stronger Than Me.” I watched her video obsessively. I fell in love with her voice and was enchanted with her sharp and edgy lyrics. I listened to a few of her other tracks, the few that could be dug up at the time online, and to be honest, felt that most of her music was beyond me. It was raw, deep, and of an emotional level, that I, as a girl in her mid-twenties, couldn’t really grasp. It was internally intimidating, if I am to confess it.
Her big album, Back to Black came out, and she exploded! As she rose into the limelight, headlines about drug abuse and alcoholism started to litter the magazines at the grocery store check-out lines, and I shamefully joined in with the self-righteous judgements of the ignorant. I mean, she looked like the definition of a hot mess with her choices in wardrobe, her trashy beehive, and the RIDICULOUS eyeliner. I laughed whole-heartedly at sketch comedy skits that mocked her drug-induced, on-stage behaviors and I often jested about how she hid drugs in her ratty beehive. I thought her a person who squanders the opportunity of a lifetime, and dismissed her death as just another pathetic waste of amazing talent. I judged and judged, without even taking stock of what I really knew about her.
As I watched AMY, the intimate documentary about Winehouse by Asif Kapadia, I felt a torrential wash of guilt at all of my previous judgements and a burgeoning anger, that a talent, so rare and so precious in this era of manufactured music, was so violently snuffed out by the pressures of greed, media, and fanatical admirers. In AMY, Kapadia exposes Winehouse as the very real, and phenomenally gifted, young woman that she was, tossed with no true support system or self-empowerment skills into the madhouse of global celebrity.
Although this documentary focuses on Winehouse from her teenage years to her tragic death, it examines a kaleidoscope of societal and cultural topics, both microscopically and macroscopically. Through telling the short saga of her life, the movie invites you to ponder the rarity of true talent, the shameful and current state of the pop-culture media, the challenges of addiction when coping with insane amounts of stress, the long-lasting effect of shitting parenting, the perseverance of friendships, the folly of youth, and how greed can overrule the love and concern for another human being. Winehouse’s life, albeit brief, was one that bears many lessons, and they are captured beautifully in this film.
Kapadia works very hard to connect the audience to Winehouse and to create a sense of intimacy throughout the film. Even when interviewing members of Winehouse’s family, friends, or colleagues, he keeps the camera on a variety of still shots of Winehouse’s lovely eyes. It was an interesting storytelling technique, and upon thinking back, I realized that most of the movie is visually dominated by Winehouse herself. It almost feels like you’re absorbing who she was, verses watching people being interviewed about her. There is no focus on how others felt around her, just on how it was to be around her. Once the film started using POV paparazzi footage, and Winehouse starts spiraling out of control, you feel can almost feel the suffocating pressure of her life in your own chest (*shudder*).
And, the music, ah, the music!!! Kapadia lets you sink into the fabulous genius behind the songs written by Winehouse and spends more time on her album Frank, than the overplayed (but still wonderful) Back to Black album. We get to see Amy recording her songs, we see her neatly handwritten lyrics, and of course, we hear her rich voice in live performances. We also see her frustration at not being able to work on new music, of having to perform her hit Rehab, over and over again. Here was a soul who wanted to create more, to express more of her heart through her wonderful music, and who sadly, didn’t have the strength or empowerment to say no to the demands of others. This is the ultimate tragedy of her life, because truly, she was just getting started, and the world was robbed of her marvelous work!
Having experienced AMY, I have a much more compassionate outlook on Winehouse and truthfully on other young celebrities who struggle with the pressures of fame. Without being heavy handed, Asif Kapadia gut-punches you just a bit in reminding you that celebrities are human beings, with the same need for acceptance, love, and respect. They can fall into the same traps as anybody dealing with an addiction or the ravages of neglectful parents. They are beautiful, vulnerable, and just as flawed as anybody else.
I want to thank the filmmakers for such a beautiful experience, even if it broke my heart a little. I’ll never read a gossip article again, I promise.
Thanks for reading,
Diva Del Mar