By Mikhail Karadimov July 8th, 2015
I was never a fan of Amy Winehouse’s. She came around when I was too young to appreciate what she attempted to do with her music. I may have been thirteen or fourteen when my brother bought a copy of Back to Black. He played it on loop, as he does, and forced me to become more intimate with her songs than I had planned. When word fell that she had died due to a supposed overdose, all I could do was shrug my shoulders callously and mutter something along the lines of, “Eh…seems about right.”
It’s easy to get wrapped up in international ridicule and heap upon those who have fallen, especially people who possess great talents. You end up feeling—especially as a creative—that the potential has been wasted on someone whose constitution was too weak for such great heights. It’s even easier to rip someone open when you’ve been tracking their decline for seven years or so. When the change comes so gradually, when it eases into normalcy through constant exposure, its commonplace to lose your bearings as a sympathetic human being and forget what that person once was. And when you can’t remember the origin, it’s tough to judge the outcome in any sympathetic way.
I won’t lie: I was an avid participant in skewering Amy Winehouse and her addictions. But now, after watching director Asif Kapadia’s touchingly tragic documentary Amy, I feel nothing but remorse, and regret, for never having tried to understand Ms. Winehouse’s situation.
Fame is an ineffable monster. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone articulate clearly what it means to be devoured so wholly by a world of people you don’t know.
The film does a good job of building towards Amy’s ultimate demise. We see every trip, every tumble, every crash. The first half of the film, before Amy hits it big with Back to Black, covers Amy’s life through candid homemade videos shot by her friends and loved ones. It follows her along, hand in hand, as she and her friends document their every waking hour. Her friends film their future megastar friend in the back seat of one of their cars as she naps with a heavy jacket pulled over her head, or they show her at home with the ladies enjoying lollipops and running role play bits. We join her for a casual audition at a record company, we sneak into a bathroom at one of her gigs to enjoy some weed. We see her cozy, we see her smiling, we see her with some well needed fat around her cheeks, her jowls, her legs. We see her as that jazz singer she always wanted to be, that girl who wanted to play one lounge after the other, stuck in anonymity, away from the feeding frenzy. Amy never could understand why her music grew so big, why such jazz-y, retro sounds would all of a sudden catch fire and compel people to fill venues the size of Noah’s Ark—where her “fans” would muzzle her under the din of their hungry calls.
The film shifts from candid, vérité videos, to media-pulled footage as soon as Amy hits it big, as soon as her friends stop recognizing her as the girl they once knew and perceive her, instead, as we did, as a druggie puppet no longer in control of her worst proclivities. Her friends practiced “tough love,” short hand for: We’ll be here when you need us, but we won’t do anything before that.
It’s around this point that Kapadia and co. get rough with the footage they choose to cull from, most of which features sucker punching paparazzi assaulting our eyes with the endless pop of flashbulbs. It’s here that we start to get a taste of what it was that broke Amy down: the constant hounding. And sure, we’ve seen this in movies before, but I think it’s more effective here because we do go from lo-fi, intimate homemade videos to a barrage of shaking, rumbling, blinding, migraine-inducing, media-friendly camerawork meant solely for the blood-hungry peanut gallery. You see the scope of the film slowly funnel open, from tight to wide, and only by the end of it do you realize how quickly Amy’s lifestyle escalated into depravity, and how that surreal-as-can-be lifestyle can sneak up on anyone and drag them down.
It hurt to watch this film. To the point where the suffering on the screen ripped me from my skull and I forgot I was watching anything at all. The movie is so intrusive—as it should be, as any documentary inherently is—and so close to Amy and all her perks and flaws, all her smiles and zits and tattoos. We pore over this meager girl’s body, her dead body, too. We pick at it, as we—the camera—stand alongside our fellow vultures and sniff and cry and yell, “R.I.P. Amy!” Rest in peace. A high task for Amy, especially when our invasive brand of pop culture insists upon smothering her corpse in a ring of morbid gawkers—mind you, the same gawkers who booed her for not wanting to dance and sing like a monkey on command just months before.
There’s a scene:
Once everything’s gone to shit and the Grammy nominations are being announced, George Lopez cracks a cheap joke after calling Amy’s name: “Can someone wake her up this afternoon around six and tell her?”
I would’ve found it funny back then. Now? I’m not so sure.