When she died in 2011, it seemed to me at least that she was a constructed persona, nothing more than a combination of attitude and accent plus a wee bet on the melodramatic end of the celebrity scale. Years before, the Los Angeles band X released a song claiming “We’re Desperate,” which I always thought curious since here they were in a recording studio under the auspices of Ray Manzarek, who surely couldn’t have come cheap, singing about being destitute!
It’s the same feeling I had from that irksome radio-friendly mix of trash and tragedy upon hearing, “they tried to make me go to rehab, but I said ‘no, no, no.’” It was such a turn-off that I turned it off and didn’t bother listening to whatever else Amy Winehouse had released.
Using phone messages, intimate family photos and archival press footage, filmmaker Asif Kapadia’s documentary Amy wraps itself in the scope of her lyrical resonance to define and decipher a life gone astray, from her earliest writing aspirations through the bulimic upswing as a response to her parents’ divorce, and missed opportunities open the secret garden gate of boozy indulgence that would lead an “old soul” to its destiny with alcohol poisoning.
Excessive, exhilarating and toxic, Winehouse came across as a hybrid of Billie Holiday and Billy Idol with her fist raised above her head while slumped against a chair: both defiant and docile, drawing art from despair.
This documentary tackled tragedy not as some traipsing journey through an open field where an anvil drops from the sky to crush your skull, but as self-perpetuated indulgence encroaches on her “bad girl” image. It relentlessly blames fame for fucking up her talent, and her husband Blake Fielder-Civil for fueling the downward spiral that cost her a promising career.
To the unacquainted, like myself, Winehouse appeared to be the Brit shit Britney, in the Daily Mail with all her trials and tribulations laid bare. Her creative atmosphere seemed stifled, contributing to long intervals of uninspired blackouts and fits of rage.
Kapadia structures the tale of woe with massive interviews from close friends who reveal the influence of Camden bands (such as The Kills) and from her decades-long association with manager Nick Shymanksy, who, if anyone, saw through her eyes. There is little doubt that what led to her destruction was the relentless press that ignored her jazz roots in favor of rock ‘n’ roll Babylon!
Yet all the negativity aside, Amy is about that voice, with its penchant for the unexpected, relying on traditional phrasing that recalls Anita O’Day and Chris Connor and the back alleys at the Blackhawk in the wee hours.
Possibly the most telling scene in the film is when Brit personality Jonathan Ross comments, “You talk like a Commoner!” And it was that ungainliness that contributed to her popularity, so by rejecting celebrity, the more uncomfortable she was with attention, the more attention she got.
Her biggest strength was her ability to be relatable even though she had hair like Ronnie Spector and collaborated with Tony Bennett, who remains the embodiment of anti-rock ‘n’ roll. Lyrically, her songs were orthopedic, intended to correct a laziness that had descended on modern day rhyme-a-dime fossilization. She was able to write beyond her contemporaries, much like the work of Brian Wilson or Laura Nyro had done in the 1960s.
Though it has been established that all it takes is talent and inspiration to write a pop song, Amy Winehouse dispensed a third element through her songs, one that is usually missing: sincerity.
I remember thinking how unbelievable it was whenever pop idols like Fabian or Davy Jones of The Monkees sang songs about losing the girl – the way they looked meant there were multiple candidates in waiting. But when Elvis Costello or Lyle Lovett sing about being cheated on or fragile relationships, it is somehow believable considering their looks!
The disposition and tone in Amy matches the singer’s passionate indifference, elevating an impending sense of desperation. Maybe it’s the way the film itself has been constructed from various sources – videotape, shaky-cam news footage, piecemeal guest spots on TV programs – that are presented as fragile and fleeting. Amy Winehouse died at the age of 27, that magic age for rock stars.
Her songs remain mood over melody. Her look reclaims that girl group toughness. It’s kiss or kill – there is no in between.