Amy (2015)

Most creative artists undergo a long apprenticeship in their chosen medium. They struggle to find their voice, their subject, the ideas they want to express. When any recognition, let alone fame and fortune, finally arrives, they drink it down like water in the desert.

For Amy Winehouse, the problem wasn’t a lack of talent. It was too much talent. As we can see in the opening of Asif Kapadia’s new documentary Amy, Amy Winehouse is a fully mature jazz singer at the age of 14. She never has to struggle to find her medium. Her medium finds her. Her voice isn’t something she has to work for. It’s something that comes up from the dark recesses of her subconscious, a demon that stalks her as a child, and lays out the path of her self-destruction as a young adult.

In her teens and in her early 20s, Amy Winehouse is just another dedicated singer, a young woman who cares more about telling us what’s inside of her than in getting a record deal. She’s not an intellectual. She’s more like a female Mick Jagger, a sexual, charismatic, performing artist who at times seems so ugly that she’s beautiful. Like a man, she drinks a lot, takes a lot of drugs, and sleeps around a lot. Like a women, she is needy and falls in love with the wrong “bad boy,” Blake Fielder, a skinny dirt bag with thinning hair who gets her addicted, makes her dependent, toys with her emotions, then abandons her.

Amy Winehouse’s parents are nondescript working-class morons who have won the lottery. Her father attaches himself to her successful career like a leech to the bottom of a ship, playing paparazzi to his own daughter, trying to sell footage of her private life to the media even as she sinks into alcoholism and despair. There are a few people who genuinely care about Amy, some childhood girlfriends, her band members, mostly black, musicians who appreciate her vast talent, but who can do little to help, her bodyguard, who watches with horror as the darkness begins to engulf her.

For the media, Amy is a phenomenon who eventually becomes a punch line. Her hit album Back to Black makes her wealthy beyond her wildest dreams. It also seems to stand in the way of her ability to express herself, to use her music to release the demons in her soul. Like her voice, Back to Black becomes something outside of her as an individual, a burden instead of a gift. As successful as she is, Amy becomes a proletarianized factory worker on the assembly line of the music industry, a genuine artist who gets locked into the role of white Jazz singer, her heavy, sultry voice the product, her emotions the surplus value that are taken from her in exchange for dirty fame and money.

Amy ends her career by going on strike. In her last live concert, she simply refuses to sing. Instead, she just stands on stage drunk, a silent protest against the music industry that has made it impossible for her to express her ideas, a rebellion against the voice that, like South American gold or Middle Eastern oil, has caught the attention of the greedy predators, and has given her little or nothing in return. Her silence is more eloquent than her words. She refuses at long last to be a commodity.

The most heart breaking scene in Amy is a duet with Tony Bennett. Here is the caring father she finally needs, an older man who recognizes her talent, and seems ready to help guide her through the struggle to stay alive, someone she’s looked up to since she was a child. But it’s too late. Amy Winehouse is already a dead woman at the ripe old age of 27. Bennett’s appearance is like that of a benevolent angel who briefly stays the hand of death. Realizing he is helpless to intervene, he stands back and bears witness to what she might have been.

6 thoughts on “Amy (2015)”

  1. Fantastic article. Such a tragic yet somewhat expected end to her life. So much raw talent like a Mama Cass or a Karen Carpenter it was only a matter of time before those demons finally got her. We kinda all just stood bye and waited for the enviable to happen.

  2. Amy Winehouse had immense talent, real raw talent, which almost didn’t need ‘retooling’, as the record industry is wont to do. She was the one artist I wanted to see live. I told myself, when she cleans herself up and ‘sorts herself out’ as the Brits say, I will go buy a ticket and see her, even if I have to travel to the UK to do that. Her voice, the depth the soul, is unmatched. The singer Adele is a a distant second…but even Adele does not dare to compare herself to Amy, though they are similar age and are singer songwriters. I knew when Back to Black was out, it was very likely her early swan song. It was a near perfect album lyrically and vocally. In recent times, I can’t think of another singer/band who put an album together so well. That disastrous last non-concert, it was a ‘tour’ put together by her dad…as the tour manager, he was after the 10% – disgraceful.

    1. Yeah. She certainly didn’t need auto tune.

      I’ve heard a few songs by Adele. Certainly has a powerful voice. But nothing she’s done has really pulled me in yet.

  3. she was a gladiator in the arena, and we all fed of her. watching her burn. the way she burned gave beauty to the world. maybe the same way, Nina Simone last achieved….

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