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.