DOCUMENTARY REVIEW: Amy
"AMY"-- 4 STARS
Plenty of biography films like to fancy themselves as authoritative "never before seen" looks into the private lives of historical figures. But a movie is only a movie. The dramatic license is dominant and ambiguous from the start. An actor is pretending to be the real thing. That's where a biography documentary can trump a creative film. They let the real person come through and let the reality be told. More than any other documentary this year, "Amy" will hit you with a real voice and straight story.
Filmmaker Asif Kapadia ("Senna") captures the bracing and startling rise and fall of the late jazz singer Amy Winehouse. Accessing an enormous wealth of old videos from friends and family, self-read letters of lyrics and songwriting, archived phone conversations, backstage footage, media appearances, and unreleased performances, "Amy" weaves a masterful and compelling narrative that spans her teenage years in the late 1990's before her stage career all the way to her untimely death of alcohol poisoning in 2011 at age 27. It is on the 2016 Oscar short-list for Best Documentary Feature and is available now for home viewing.
Nearly 100% of Kapadia's documentary is free of the usual "talking head" interview set-ups and contains no formal narrator. Through the extraordinary editing of Chris King and backed by Antonio Pinto's accompanied musical score, "Amy" moves from gig-to-gig and moment-to-moment through constant shifting imagery and the reactive testimonials and descriptions of the family, friends, and collaborators that were there as her life happened. Speeding beyond the traditional documentary format of omniscient distance, "Amy" dives you into every high point, low point, and binge in between with shocking realism. You see the living and breathing Amy Winehouse as if you're there in the inner circle.
What follows is a fascinating cautionary tale of stardom, celebrity, creative angst, and personal troubles. Some of the key contributors and points of focus include her parents Mitchell and Janis, long-time friend Juliette Ashby, ex-manager Nick Shymansky, ex-husband Blake Fielder, hip hop artist Mos Def, friend and musician Tyler James, pianist Sam Beste, producer Salaam Remi, and bodyguard Andrew Morris. Not a single one of them question Amy's talent or if she deserved acclaim and success. All of them were as mesmerized as we were. Sadly, all of them will rightfully question her stability and whether or not she was supported enough to maintain her dignity, health, and humanity.
With "Amy," very few other cinematic offerings convey a rise and fall of celebrity with so much palpable detail. In watching Winehouse herself through all of this footage, you see, hear, and feel her immense talent and her emotional relationship to music. Her gravity is strong even now years after her death. You also sense her clear and self-aware depression, prophetic thoughts on face, the pressures of paparazzi-powered celebrity, the leeching stardom, and the unraveling changes in psyche and health brought on by vicious addictions to drugs and alcohol. "Amy" balances its glimmers of beautiful appreciation for its subject with the frightening and saddening results of unchecked personal demons.
LESSON #1: SUCCESS COMING FROM WITHIN YOUR OWN TALENT-- Amy Winehouse, from her look in homage of 1960's girl groups to her vast knowledge and appreciation of all things jazz, had her definitive creative influences. No one, however, created her talent. That was all her. We had to discover it, not her. As Tony Bennett will tell you in the documentary, Amy was a "pure and natural jazz singer" on another level. She wasn't an overproduced or autotuned mess created in a sound lab.
LESSON #2: KIDS, DON'T ABUSE DRUGS AND ALCOHOL-- Winehouse reached a level of self-harm when it came to crack, cocaine, heroin and alcohol. Those abuses were supplemented by each other, powered by stress and depression, and their cumulative effects were multiplied by her bulimia and poor diet. Stay clean, folks. That'll help.
LESSON #3: BE THE SUPPORTIVE ONE THAT SAYS "NO"-- On many levels, Amy Winehouse was brought down by her own choices of relationships. They exposed her to and pushed her vices. They made her feel boring without the drugs and alcohol. You hear this lesson from some of speaking friends and partners in "Amy." Someone needed to be a true support and someone that told her no instead of yes.