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Thursday, February 25, 2016


When making a documentary about a popular musician it is probably tricky not to turn it into just another episode of Behind the Music. Laudably, Asif Kapadia, in his film Amy, has avoided that, and managed to make an innovative film that covers some familiar ground--the rise and tragic fall of a star.

His subject is Amy Winehouse, who only made two albums but made a huge splash in the pop/jazz/rock worlds before dying at the age of 27. She won five Grammys and impressed many in the business with her vocal talents and songwriting ability, but she was not emotionally strong enough to resist the temptations of fame, especially with the lackluster parenting she received.

One of the advantages Kapadia had is that it seems that almost every moment of Winehouse's life is on tape. Her discoverer, friend, and manager, Nick Shymanksy, tapes the ride to a gig when Winehouse was sixteen, as if he knew it would one day be part of a documentary. When she would become famous, there would be so many interview programs and paparazzi footage that there is no need of any narration. Winehouse herself narrates from beyond the grave, presumably the audio taken from an interview.

A Jewish girl from North London, Winehouse was precocious in her talent, and loved jazz performers like Dinah Washington and Tony Bennett (when she finally makes a duet with Bennett, and makes several mistakes, his kindness to her is exemplary). She makes an album that does fairly well, and then dithers about her second project, all the while drinking like a fish and suffering from bulimia, a bad combination, as it weakens her heart. Then she meets a musician named Blake Fielder, one of the villains of this piece, as he turns her onto heroin and crack cocaine, and then goes back to his old girlfriend.

The heartache over this break-up inspires Winehouse to write the album Back to Black, which made her a star. She would reunite with Fielder, marry him, and then divorce him. Her personal life was pretty much a shambles. This was not helped by her father, who left the family when she was ten but of course came back when she was rich and famous, sponging off of her and enabling her addictions, as he told her she did not need rehab (which was a line in the song "Rehab," her biggest hit). Late in the film, when she has escaped to an island for some rest and relaxation, he shows up with a film crew, making a reality series.

Winehouse did have good friends, especially Shymansky and her two girlhood friends, Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, who all wanted her to get the help she needed. Shymansky in particular makes a pointed statement that if she had had the help of professionals before she hit it big it might have made it easier for her to handle the fame.

Amy is a terrific film but it's also unnerving, as we are watching a fish in a bowl slowly kill themselves. But there are some wonderful moments. In addition to the Tony Bennett duet, we see her in London except the Grammy for Record of the Year (for "Rehab") presented by Bennett himself. Her undisguised happiness is refreshing given how calculated most stars are.

Perhaps Kapadia's greatest strength in Amy is, despite all the paparazzi stuff, he manages to portray what appears to be the real Amy Winehouse, in all her greatness and sadness. The live-fast/die-young music star is an unfortunate cliche by now, bu Kapadia avoids the familiar and manages to almost reinvent the genre.

Amy is the favorite for the upcoming Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. I haven't seen any of the others, but if it does win I think it's well deserved.

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