December 2, 2015 -- This documentary film about the short, sad life of Amy Winehouse shows two sides of her personality. One part of her always hits the right notes, the other part is that old familiar, depressing death spiral associated with the music industry that tests your faith in people.
Soon after the film starts, we hear the astonishing voice of Amy, singing a jazzy version of the Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer standard, “Moon River,” when she was 16 years old. Her voice is playful as it spirals around the jazz riffs she loves, seemingly almost out of control, but always hitting the right notes, just in the nick of time. The film has a number of clips, some not seen before, of Amy performing, and lots of interviews with friends, family and people in the music business.
In a delightful televised interview early in her career, the interviewer, Jonathan Ross, appreciates her genuine North London accent. He says it is a refreshing change from singers who have had elocution lessons given to cover up their accents, and Amy replies she had those kinds of lessons, but they didn't take. Her voice is that of the common people, not at all the BBC accent Americans are more used to. She is charming, clever, and very high spirited in the interview.
The film skims Amy's career in the early days, from singing with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra in 2000, to singing in clubs, to her association with manager Nick Shymanksy of the 19 Management agency in 2002, then her debut jazz album, “Frank” in 2003. Jazz is a niche market. If Amy had stuck to Jazz, continued club singing and making jazz recordings, she might have been spared the tragedy that followed, but she branched out into more popular musical genres, soul and rhythm and blues, and was devoured by industry greed.
By this time, Amy's personality was already showing cracks, bulimia nervosa, alcoholism, drug use, and a self-destructive love life. Amy reportedly blamed some of her emotional problems on the fact that her father, Mitchell Winehouse, was largely absent from her upbringing, even before he had left her mother for another woman when Amy was young. Janis Winehouse, Amy's mother, says in the film that Amy was strong-willed and Janis was unable to control her on her own. Mitchell said in the film he thought Amy had gotten over his leaving pretty fast. She never got over it.
When Amy met her future husband, Blake Fielder-Civil (credited as Blake Fielder in the film). Her on and off affair with Blake, who left her twice, made her an emotional wreck. He was also a user of cocaine and heroin, and was her drug use enabler. They used those drugs together. The film shows the dramatic influence that cocaine and heroin had on Amy. The way she talks and sings is dramatically different, and degraded, when she is under the influence of alcohol and drugs.
Her manager Nick Shymanksy, said in the film he had once forced Amy into confronting her problems, and she had agreed to submitting to a rehab program, but her father told her she didn't need rehab, so she didn't do it. Shymansky said he thought that was an important missed opportunity in her life. Her emotional pain and addictions also served as a source of her musical inspirations, however. One of her hit songs is titled “Rehab.”
Despite the fact that her personal life was falling apart, her second album, “Back to Black” released in late 2007, was a huge success, rocketing her to international stardom, numerous music awards and the attention of an endless pack of paparazzi, who hounded her to her death, and beyond. The pressure of stardom and touring was too much for her. After one of her rehab stints, and a good performance, she is quoted as saying backstage that it wasn't fun performing without drugs.
The remainder of Amy's life was up and down, mostly down, with brief periods of sobriety followed by alcohol or drug binges. She stayed in Saint Lucia in the Caribbean for a time. According to the film, she was off drugs, but drank heavily at that time. There is also footage of her last recording with one of her idols, Tony Bennett, for his “Duets II” album. She apologizes to Bennett for her need to do a number of takes to get it right on the song “Body and Soul.”
The footage of Amy struggling to sing when drunk or on drugs is tragic. Forced to go on a European concert tour she didn't want to do, she simply refuses to sing at one concert, falling down on stage several times. Perhaps the most disturbing thing about Amy's life is the fact that she clearly needed a lot of love and support, but too many of those around her seemed willing to cash in on her fame and fortune with little concern for her physical and mental health. This is a film that shows the ugly side of the news media. The paparazzi, especially, just seem to be trying to tear pieces from her.
The film does show some of her oldest friends, and she had a lot of friends, who cared for her, but felt there was nothing they could do for her. One of them, lifelong friend Juliette Ashby, talks about speaking to Amy over the phone, and how she sounded normal, just hours before she died. She died on July 23, 2011 at age 27 of alcohol poisoning hours before her and Ashby were supposed to talk again. Other contributing factors to her death, according to the film was bulimia and drug use, which weakened her heart.
I got the impression from this film that Amy was basically a good person, despite her many faults, but the film makes no mention of the fact that she was a noted philanthropist, or that a foundation was established in her name by her family after her death. Quite a few other things are left out of this documentary, in favor of trying to explain why she died at such a young age.
What emerges from this film is a gifted performer who is emotionally vulnerable, with crippling addictions. Her romance with Blake Fielder was certainly a major factor in her addictions and her early demise. Even her father, a major influence in her life, seems suspect in the film, as far as attending to Amy's best interests. At the end, one of her closest friends seems to be her bodyguard, Andrew Morris, the one who discovers her body. Shortly before that, Morris said Amy had told him she would give back her whole musical career, “just to walk down that street with no hassle.”
Amy's death at age 27 drew comparisons to other musicians who died at that same young age, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. Her case is hardly unique. This film tries to give the viewer a sense of what made Amy unique. Mostly, that is her voice and her love of jazz, a music last popular decades before she was born in 1983. Her voice, and jazz stylings sound as if they come from records made 60 years before the release of her own records.
I was going to compare her with Kurt Cobain, since I just watched another good documentary, “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” recently, and their lives share many similarities. Probably a more apt comparison is between Amy and Billie Holiday, another supremely talented singer with drug problems who died young (a good film about her is “Lady Sings the Blues,” starring a couple of other all-time greats, Diana Ross and Richard Pryor). Amy Winehouse's story is a sad one, and a familiar one. This film sets her apart from other, similar entertainers, but not far enough. It rates a B.
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