The Decline of Western Civilization, Part Four
Amy Winehouse was a junky, a spoiled little millionaire loser who flushed her promising career down the toilet just as thoroughly as she flooded her lungs with crack cocaine. Marked by withering limbs, rotted teeth, and a barely-human hanger-on boyfriend, her oblivion spiral became the pop spectator sport of 2010. When she died a year later, the laughter of a hundred late-night-TV monologue jokes still reverberated, echoing our collective lack of sympathy. Admit it, the cosmic irony of Winehouse’s chart-topping hit, “Rehab”, still makes you giggle.
There are people in this world for whom the above sentiment will forever hold true. You might be one of them, and that’s okay. I didn’t care about Amy Winehouse, either, until watching Asif Kapadia’s ambitious, immersive, and downright amazing documentary, Amy. I’d been a casual fan of Winehouse’s music, but am ashamed to admit that I fell into the easy-jokes crowd like so many of us who made the singer’s downfall possible. No, we didn’t coerce the 27-year-old into an alcohol binge that fatally tipped the scales of her fragile, drug-addled body—but we are complicit.
We are complicit.
The film chronicles the life of a sassy British teen who fell into a music career and ascended to the top of the charts in just over a decade. Comprised completely of photomontages, home videos, interviews, and behind-the-scenes tape (and given voice by friends and colleagues) Amy is, on the surface, an unconventionally presented conventional bio-doc. A sideways glance at the form, though, reveals something darker and far more intriguing: it's the first true-life found-footage horror film—complete with a beautiful, resourceful, but ultimately doomed heroine squaring off against the undying, relentless forces of darkness.
Over the course of two hours, Kapadia presents a beautiful arc that most scripted dramas would kill for. Winehouse, the troubled product of a broken home, sought refuge in singing and lyric writing at a young age. She parlayed that into a music career, thanks to a network of friends who became more like family than her own flesh and blood. She put in the work of gigging and touring and meeting with press, never taking to her label’s attempts at crafting a polished media persona. Especially in early interviews, she comes off as blunt and distracted, always eager to get back to the "music" part of the music business.
For strong evidence that God not only exists but is a cruel and gifted black-humorist, look no further than Winehouse’s introduction to Blake Fielder-Civil at the precise moment her career truly took off. The self-styled addict, club promoter, and poon-hound seduced Winehouse, greasily filling the roles of lover, father figure, and purveyor of hard drugs. He became as addicted to the suites-and-sweet-rides lifestyle of Winehouse’s awards-show ascent as she did to his essence—the scumbag je ne sais quoi that compelled her to get “Blake’s” tattooed over her left breast.
To further twist the narrative knife, Winehouse’s father, Mitch, re-entered her life under the guise of reconciliation and became a fixture of her inner circle. He and Fielder-Civil never officially aligned to squeeze Amy dry, but the effect was downright conspiratorial: Dad’s desire to be taken care of superseded any consideration for his daughter’s well being. He proved himself a gross opportunist who set the tone on Amy’s staff of looking the other way and preserving, at all costs, the integrity of his gravy train’s increasingly isolated engine—even if it was clearly fueled by pills and pipes that emitted black clouds of depression.
Despite this inevitable second-act turn, Amy is not a complete downer of a film; its first half is the exact opposite, which makes Amy Winehouse’s death so gut-wrenching. Kapadia takes great pains to portray her as a supremely talented cool girl whose throwback soul sound was a reaction to the bland pop of her day. She didn’t want to be famous; she wanted to perform great, non-committee music. In every video and photograph, we are drawn to the fierce spirit behind Winehouse’s eyes. In the darkest moments of her decline, that light never diminishes; it transitions from radiance to rage within a deteriorating mental and physical shell. Like the final girl in a horror movie, we want to see Winehouse survive, and at several points I felt compelled to shout, “No! Don’t go in there!”
Winehouse was a celebrity, for sure, but Amy captures the essence that would have made her a star, had she lived. In one scene, she's on stage at a remote-feed Grammy concert, waiting for Tony Bennett and Natalie Cole to announce the Record of the Year. We can see Winehouse's heart beating through her chest and her eyes are a frenzied mix of anticipation and disbelief that two of her idols have spoken her name aloud (and are perhaps about to do so again). The celebration that follows is heartwarming, but this scene's stinger is devastating in both theme and delivery. I won't spoil it for you, but there's no finer example of just how thoroughly and insidiously substance abuse can eclipse the sun.
That Kapadia and editor Chris King could fashion a compelling eleven-year narrative of the Winehouse orbit is a chiling commentary on our societal obsession with capturing absolutely everything on film. At times, I had to remind myself that this wasn't a painstakingly assembled drama meant to feel like a collage of artifacts. The scene where Bennett helps Amy push past nerves and insecurities during a studio session convinced my mind, momentarily, that I was watching Oscar bait starring Robert DeNiro and Anna Kendrick. A later scene is a multi-angle fireworks display of paparazzi flashbulbs that's so immersive I wondered if I'd somehow forgotten being in a London crowd with my phone camera that day. 3D blockbusters aren't this convincing.
If it's playing in your city, I highly recommend catching Amy in a theatre--over just about any mainstream distractions available right now. That may sound like an odd endorsement for a documentary, but Kapadia has fashioned a truly unique film whose full effect, I imagine, will degrade on the small screen. This is a movie worth rooting for, and worth telling your friends about. This is one of my favorite films of the year.
That said, your primary emotion on exiting the auditorium probably won't be joy, or even sadness. It's more likely to be anger. Anger at a scumbag boyfriend and scheming father who put their own desires above the life of someone they claimed to love. Anger (fair or unfair) at an intelligent and gifted artist who ultimately wasn't strong enough to beat her chemical and emotional demons. Anger at a culture that prizes gossip, tabloid humor, and an insatiable need for content above basic human dignity. Anger at an entertainment machine that sits atop the heap, ready with niche-proven replacement pop stars when the flavor du jour has gone sour.
For example, I don't doubt that Adele is a talented person with dreams just as legitimate as Amy Winehouse's, but her ascension coincided perfectly with the market's need to keep the fallen singer's sound going. I suppose this assembly line has been up and running for decades, but Amy (just like Amy) asks us to look beyond the bullshit and reclaim art from its glossy, commoditized packaging. It's a struggle, I know, especially in a time when we carry digital bandwagons in our back pockets. Maybe we could all use a little rehab, starting with admitting there's a problem--and then watching this movie.