Review: Asif Kapadia’s breakout Amy Winehouse biopic ‘Amy’

Ambitious new film documentary follows the rise of music star Amy Winehouse as well as her relentless descent into promiscuity, drugs, alcohol and death.

Movie promo poster for new Amy Winehouse biopic "Amy."

WASHINGTON, July 20, 2015 – In what will no doubt go down as one of the greatest musical biography/docudramas of all time, “Amy,” directed by Asif Kapadia, traces the life and difficult times of the internationally famed breakout British jazz and soul singer Amy Winehouse.

July was certainly the time to debut this film, as this month marks the fourth anniversary of Amy Winehouse’s tragic death on July 23, 2011, from what popular urban culture thought to be a drug overdose, but what the coroner later officially reported to be a much more complicated case of “misadventure.”

Amy Winehouse on stage.
Amy Winehouse on stage. Photo by Rama, CC 2.0 license, via Wikipedia.

“Amy” has already broken the UK box office record for the highest opening weekend of a British documentary film, grossing £519,000 – the equivalent of over $10 million U.S. since its release on July 3. It also enjoyed success here, earning over $2.85 million from just six cinemas before expanding to more movie houses in the following weeks.

In what should be a required remedial sex and drug awareness education course for every wannabe “American Idol” entertainer, singer, actress or performer, “Amy” charts the exhilarating highs of pure unadulterated musical talent on display and the catastrophic lows of the drug and sex addicted downside of the pop music scene in this mesmerizing two-hour-and-eight-minute saga of a tragic human train wreck.

In a life eerily similar to the lives of Jimi Hendrix and Janice Joplin, she died 27 years later in a haze of drugs and self-destructive behavior that cut short what the great legends like Tony Bennett felt was the second coming of Lady Day.

“Amy” makes use of contemporary video clips taken by her close circle of family and friends, splicing them all together to create a raw, uncensored portrait of her self-indulgent personality. The ever-present video cameras and social media lenses captured every aspect of the performance personality that defined her life, essentially creating this brilliant biopic organically, from the ground up.

In a classic Freudian case study of childhood trauma, abandonment and neglect, the film paints a vivid picture of Amy’s rise from the smoldering embers of her roller coaster childhood to a teenage force of nature and over-the-top personality.

The film peels off every emotional layer of Amy’s chaotic childhood life. Her volatile personality erupted early, an uncontrolled force of nature. At the same time, her submissive mother shrank from dealing with this for the most part. Perhaps she was still reeling from the emotional trauma caused by her husband’s early exit from his parental responsibilities.

It’s clear, though, that without having her father present in her life as a source of parental control, Amy became difficult to handle, particularly due to her early teenage depression resulting from her parents’ breakup and divorce after her ninth birthday.

And to add psychological context and depth to the docudrama, the movie brilliantly intersperses vignettes about her struggle with body image and sexuality, as it reveals her self-destructive habit of binging and purging on food during recording sessions.

(Below: YouTube video of Amy and company singing “Me and Mr. Jones,” Isle of Wight, 2007.)

Born Amy Jade Winehouse on Sept. 14, 1983, to a working-class Jewish family in North London’s Southgate neighborhood—where many prominent Jewish families lived—Amy effectively became both the star and the tragic victim of the self-obsessed contemporary culture in her own posthumous documentary.

When Amy was 9 years old, her father Mitch—an itinerant window installer and taxi driver—steadily cheated on and finally left his much smarter but passive pharmacist wife. But from this poor beginning, things began to look up.

Amy’s paternal grandmother, Cynthia, who was also a singer, had a profound influence on her life. Cynthia recognized her granddaughter’s raw talents and encouraged her to attend a series of theater schools where she naturally gravitated toward her budding ambition to be an entertainer.

Amy also was greatly influenced by blues and jazz, due at least in part to hearing and learning from the Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington records her family often played when she was a child.

The thriving arts scene in her neighborhood, centered around an art deco underground, created the perfect incubator for Amy’s budding talent. Southgate was also known for its taverns and inns. In combination with the arty atmosphere, the scene provided young Amy Winehouse with her earliest performance platform. After toying with her brother’s guitar for years, she bought her own at age 14, later forming a short-lived rap group called Sweet ‘n’ Sour with her childhood friend Juliette Ashby.

Juliette and other friends played a significant role not only in Amy’s life, but also in the development of the movie. Even at an early age, they seemed to be intentionally role-playing as Amy’s entourage of backup singers, faux promoters, videographers and advance men. Their clips were an accidental gift to Asif Kapadia, who brilliantly spliced together these snippets of the singer’s life from grainy late 1990s Super 8 videos taken of her early auditions. Even early family footage is included, highlighting Amy as a boisterous 3-year-old singing “Happy Birthday.”

Amy Winehouse and friends.
Amy with friends and backup singers in happier days. (Image via Wikipedia)

Amy’s teenage band of gypsies and surrogate family allowed her the freedom of creative expression she craved. They took care of all the boring details of day-to-day life, role-playing as Amy’s entourage, management and roadies by arranging everything from transportation to recording studio logistics, the better to encourage her early demo tapes and club dates in London’s dynamic pop music and underground club scenes.

In this film, you sense that Amy was comfortably at home in the intimate jazz clubs where she could get high on weed backstage before the glaring intrusion of the paparazzi, while experiencing the adoration and gratitude of her adoring audiences, who, early on, recognized the blossoming genius wrapped inside her raw, hard-to-define talent.

Amy’s best friend and fellow soul singer Tyler James, sent her demo tape to an A&R promoter in London, which led to her being signed to Simon Fuller’s 19 Management in 2002 at the age of 19.

This recording deal and all the pressures of her growing pop success pushed Amy onto the slippery downhill slope of substance abuse. Her young life was radically transformed when the world discovered her voice as well as her genius for writing autobiographic lyrics drawn from the ashes of her failed early relationships.

Amy Winehouse in Baltimore.
Amy Winehouse performing live in Baltimore in 2007. (Via Wikipedia)

Winehouse deployed that kind of creative energy in her debut album, “Frank,” which was primarily produced by Salaam Remi and released in late 2003. Later in 2004, she and Remi won an award for Best Contemporary Song, for their first single together, “Stronger Than Me,” where she laid bare her true persona as an aggressive man-eater.

Winehouse co-wrote every song on the album with the exception of two jazz standard covers. It received rave reviews as the “cool, critical gaze” of her lyric style which was compared to Sarah Vaughan and Macy Gray.

Her music comes alive on the screen, as the film brilliantly juxtaposes Amy’s longhand notes and lyrics against her voice, although American fans will almost require subtitles to understand the power of her cockney English accent.

For all her surface success, Amy’s mental and physical states had already begun to buckle under the pressure of her growing stardom. Her problems with bulimia are discovered almost by accident, as her entourage pieces together her puzzling behavior. They note Amy’s voracious appetite and hearty eating on the road, but later are faced with cleaning up the mess she leaves behind in the bathroom where she decorates the loo with vomit, before lighting a joint and pivoting back onto the stage as if nothing happened.

In addition to Amy’s physical problems, the film brilliantly portrays the casual “hook up” culture as exemplified by Amy’s promiscuous lifestyle, put vividly on display. She casually discards one boyfriend, taking after the narcissistic club manager who would later become her first husband and alter ego.

Blake Fielder would predictably drop Amy when their affair became too intense, only to come groveling back to make amends when she would exact revenge by describing the trauma of their breakup in lyrics for her next breakout CD “Back to Black.” (“Back to Black” YouTube video below.)

As if dealing with the mercurial and brutal Fielder weren’t enough, Amy’s estranged father returns to her life with a vengeance to carve out a fringe role as a reality TV producer, promoter and manager of what is fast becoming the train wreck that Amy’s paparazzi-obsessed, London club scene hopping lifestyle was fast becoming.

Amy had graduated from marijuana to crack cocaine, heroin and an alcohol-saturated and addictive roller coaster co-dependent lifestyle, aided and abetted by Blake Fielder, the emotional vampire who helped her careen helplessly out of control.

One particularly gruesome scene in the film captures Amy and Blake leaving a London club in 2007 with lipstick and blood smeared all over their faces and clothes following a “cutting” ritual involving broken glass.

To add insult to injury, she actually married Fielder, despite her parents’ concerns about the couple’s rumored a suicide pact. Blake was later arrested for “perverting the course of justice” and did over two years in a London jail as Amy attempted to clean up her life and move on by moving to Saint Lucia in early 2009 and hooking up with Josh Bowman as she proceeded to serve Fielder with divorce papers while he was still in the London slammer.

During this entire period Amy’s father Mitch Winehouse managed her money and denied that Amy had anything to do with Blake’s arrest or that any of the money and drugs seized during the arrest came from his daughter.

The uncontested divorce was granted in July of 2009 and became final on Aug. 28, 2009, and the incarcerated loser ex-husband Blake received no money in the settlement.

At the height of her success Amy Winehouse had fortune estimated in the neighborhood of £10 million, the equivalent of $18 to $20 million U.S., tying her for 10th place in the 2008 Sunday Times listing of the wealth of musicians under age 30. But the following year her fortune had dropped to half its value, an estimated £5 million, while under the dubious management of her parents.

Makeshift Winehouse memorial, London.
Makeshift posthumous memorial in front of Amy Winehouse’s home in Camden Square, London, 2011. (Via Wikipedia)

Like Amy’s life, the film follows her relentless descent into hell, including her notorious non-performance in a Serbian stadium before a sold-out crowd of eventually infuriated fans. They demanded refunds when she stumbled on stage, sat on a speaker and refused to sing. She was clearly nearing the end of the road.

At 3:54 p.m. on July 23, 2011, two ambulances were called to Winehouse’s home in London after her bodyguard discovered her lying unconscious. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

A coroner’s inquest reached an ambiguous verdict of “misadventure.” The report released in October 2011 explained that Winehouse’s blood alcohol content was 416 mg per 100ml (0.416 percent) at the time of her death, more than five times the legal drunk driving limit. According to the coroner, “The unintended consequences of such potentially fatal levels was her sudden death.”

In an ironic postscript, it was after her death that the singer broke her second Guinness World Record, this one for the most songs by a woman (eight) to simultaneously appear on the UK singles chart.

The relentless decline of Amy Winehouse make this film at times extraordinarily difficult to take. But it is the guts of what makes “Amy” perhaps the greatest documentary film that this still infant century has seen.

“Amy” stands as an unvarnished portal into the life of a major star and primary victim of today’s self-absorbed social media and celebrity-addicted pop music and entertainment culture. It is the ruthless beast that exploits every living moment of ill-fated stars such as Amy Winehouse in life and in death, and this film makes that case beyond any reasonable doubt.

“Amy” is off the charts. For fans of R&B, rock, pop and pop culture, it’s the must-see summer movie. Hint: If you decide to see this film, make sure you pick a theater with a first-class Dolby sound system if you want to get the full effect from this modern musical and biographical classic.

Rating: ************ (more stars than we can print)


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