A review of a compelling documentary on the spectacular rise and catastrophic fall of British singer Amy Winehouse, a star with an old voice in a young body.
The earliest films were primitive documentaries-seconds-long slices of point-and-shoot reality, such as the Lumiere brothers’ Arrival of a Train at a Station (1895). For decades thereafter, it was maintained that the documentary format sui generis presented unmediated, pristine reality. A film like Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) was deemed particularly worthy because nothing seemingly intervened between subject and viewer but the camera’s eye.
Sophisticated film scholarship has long critiqued this notion’s wrongheadedness. Every documentary invariably reflects its maker’s intentions and aesthetic or ideological concerns. (In fact, Flaherty and others often staged their “real” scenes of tribal life).
The manipulation of reality may be glaringly obvious, as in World War II propaganda films on both sides of the conflict. The stentorian narration of an Orson Welles–like “omnipotent narrator” often served to reinforce the “reality effect.” Conversely, the director’s viewpoint can be expressed with exceptional subtlety so that the camera seems to be unspooling effortlessly somewhere in the back of one’s cranium. Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries often expose the dysfunctionality of American milieus-a hospital for the criminally insane to a suburban high school-sans narration. Wiseman always lets his images alone speak for him in masterful “declarations of camera.”
Like Wiseman, Asif Kapadia eschews narration in his compelling documentary on the spectacular rise and catastrophic fall of British star-singer Amy Winehouse. Stylistically as well as thematically Amy echoes Kapadia’s earlier documentary on the auto racer Ayrton Senna (Senna, 2010)-another charismatic and doomed celebrity. Kapadia sutures accounts of those who knew Winehouse, loved or grossly exploited her, with sequences from-inter alia-practice sessions, concerts, and TV news footage.
On several viewings, Amy remains attractive cinematically. But I am also troubled by the director’s “declarations.” Although artfully crafted, the film presents a simplistic depiction of Winehouse’s complex personality. The singer’s character-like her life-was fraught with ambiguities and contradictions. She was astonishingly talented, by turns irreverently funny, immensely generous, unpleasantly narcissistic, callously manipulative. And ever deeply unknowing of herself.
Winehouse attained early celebrity seemingly effortlessly-even as she declared that she scorned it and was terrified of it.
Kapadia reduces Winehouse to a genre staple-the doomed diva, mercilessly exploited by intimates who should have known better; by minions of an insensately greedy music industry; and by the media’s unholy depredations. Kapadia’s Amy fatally embraces a celebrity thrust upon her that she never wanted or sought.
Psychoanalyst/film critic Martha Wolfenstein observed that movies are often pervaded by “false appearances.” When a film relentlessly hammers home its take on a character or event, one dives beneath the slick surface to discover the “unconscious movie,” of which both the maker and viewer are unaware; where quite different, frequently opposite truths reside. Whether the director’s vision of Amy is informed by conscious or unconscious biases about his subject, it’s distressingly distorted.
A film’s opening moments, as in a psychoanalytic session, often encapsulate some leitmotif of the movie (or patient). Amy’s opening credits unfold against the background of her jazz rendition of “Moon River.” The words express yearning for an ineffably unattainable happiness. One submits this was Winehouse’s yearning, too, throughout her brief life. Her performance is inimitable, simultaneously jaunty and heartbreaking. It’s also one of the relatively few jazz standards she recorded, compared with the substantial oeuvre of her own work-of which, more presently.
An old voice in a young body
Shots from handheld home movies of early childhood flow into a scene from her fifteenth year. Cavorting with pals, she’s sassy and brassy; not classically beautiful, but one senses a sultry eroticism beneath the pubescent baby fat. I thought of Cleopatra-by legend also no great beauty-but, paraphrasing Shakespeare, a charmer of infinite variety.
As her fame grew, Winehouse’s visage mimed the faces of Cleopatra or Nefertiti. (In fact, the stylized Egyptian makeup, big lipstick, and big hair were largely drawn from the look of the 60s girl bands she admired.) One is astonished by the honey-rich vocalism of her bluesy “Happy Birthday.” Often just behind the beat, syllables voluptuously stretched across the beat-as someone said, “It’s an old voice in a young body.”
Winehouse’s jokey narration of her history dances away from traumatizing early circumstances: at 9, she was devastated when dad Mitch abandoned his family for another woman. She paid no heed to a weak, befuddled mom; moved out in her teens to live with another kid from a similarly disordered family life. She cut school enthusiastically, smoked much tobacco and more weed, drank heavily-what larks!! (Only much later does the film indicate-en passant-that by her late teens Amy had at least become a borderline addict, actively bulimic, and quite probably bipolar.)
The legend of a young genius whose artistic gifts blossom seemingly ex nihilo-the boy Raphael is discovered drawing beautiful images in farmyard dirt-goes back at least as far as the Renaissance. In a popular bathetic storyline that emerged during the Romantic era, budding genius is tragically cut down by suicide, drink, or tuberculosis. Kapadia puts this bromide into play, making it seem that Winehouse’s art descended upon her like divine grace.
The singer’s character-like her life-was fraught with ambiguities and contradictions. She was astonishingly talented, by turns irreverently funny, immensely generous, unpleasantly narcissistic, callously manipulative.
Her formal instruction in music and theater goes unmentioned; also a family history of musical performance and love of jazz. Winehouse was already enraptured by music, especially jazz, in her childhood. She loved-and probably mimed-legendary singers like Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, and Ella Fitzgerald. She was also knowledgeable about the works of composers like Thelonious Monk-jazz’s Beethoven (or Schoenberg).
Leo Braudy’s The Frenzy of Renown (1986) elegantly traces the origins of our contemporary obsession with celebrity to the Romans. (Two millennia before the Internet, there were characters in the Eternal City famous for being famous.) The Latin god Fama’s head had a long forelock and was bald behind-the metaphor expressing that one had to grab celebrity quickly and hold on to it dearly, lest it pass you by in the twinkling of an eye. Enduring fame was hard to come by; when it did come, more often than not it was fleeting-and dangerous.
Winehouse attained early celebrity seemingly effortlessly-even as she declared that she scorned it and was terrified of it. Kapadia highlights frequent statements that fame “. . . would drive me mad.” However, one notes that Winehouse was exuberantly mercurial. She may very well have believed what she said about fame-or anything else-at the moment she said it. Kapadia accepts her dread of incipient insanity in Fama’s coils at face value. It’s crucial to the film-and utterly disingenuous.
In fact, Winehouse had always wanted her work known; in that desire she was as intensely critical of herself as she was demanding of the colleagues, fellow musicians, and studio technicians who cherished her. In her late teens she performed at local choruses, concerts, and small clubs where industry scouts were in the audience. She was writing accomplished songs in her late teens. Their style, lyrics, and her performances lay beyond jazz, embracing girl-band, rock, and soul music.
Winehouse’s talents were recognized by an adoring public in her early twenties. Within several short years, her poignant songs about love’s pitfalls and sorrows went viral, as did her idiosyncratic appearance. She was everywhere-in print, gabbing with TV talking heads, in concerts at halls that rivaled gladiatorial arenas in size and spectatorship. At 25, the staggering success of several albums and platinum singles like “Love Is a Losing Game” had earned her virtually every award in the business, including a Grammy near-sweep. She became a multimillionaire, lived lavishly-but also gave millions to charities (a fact the film never mentions).
In those same years her shadow side became increasingly public. As her adolescent addictions escalated, she became more bulimic; often was flagrantly promiscuous. Her problems became staples of the odious London tabloids and similar dreck worldwide.
She started showing up late at concerts, stoned to the retinas, sometimes profanely refusing to perform. Several important tours were cancelled. Explosions of temper became physical, leading to several well-publicized scrapes with authority.
To be fair, Kapadia does touch upon Winehouse’s considerable responsibility for her self-immolation-albeit faintly and late in the picture. But mostly he joins other blame-gamers in excoriating her intrusive father, Mitch; her disreputable husband; and TV/tabloid/paparazzi vampires.
Amy implies that Mitch Winehouse’s reappearance was sparked by his daughter’s fame. Whatever the case, he figured ever more prominently in her career as her reliance on him escalated. (She was acerbically canny and witty about Oedipal connotations and mocked pop-Freudianism.) Amy also intimates that Mitch, abetted by rapacious producers, pushed her deeper into international tours before enormous crowds she had come to detest and fear. He denied her bulimia (as did her mother) and made light of her addiction until it was glaringly spotlighted. In “Rehab,” which hurled her to the top of the charts and a greater frenzy of renown, she essentially praises Mitch for dismissing the 12-step programs that might have saved her life: “If my daddy thinks I’m fine. . . . I won’t go, go, go!”
Throughout numerous affairs, Winehouse maintained an ambivalent, turbulent, sometimes violent relationship with Blake Fielder- Civil, a repellent lounge lizard who introduced her to heroin and cocaine, then married her. When their gruesome twosome ended in divorce, he blew her off. She plunged into major depression and died alone from alcohol poisoning.
A storm of Schadenfreude
Winehouse’s aberrant behavior in her last years sparked unconscionable derision in the tabloids and on TV. Late night blather hosts who had adulated her during her brief prime now made her the butt of vicious jokes. One has seen this noxious derision before-about the disordered lives and untimely deaths of Michael Jackson and Princess Diana. But the gibing about them was slim compared with Winehouse’s vituperative defamation.
Why the media schlockmeisters and their snarky fans so relish the debacles of the rich and famous predictably elicits standard psychological speculations. It’s theorized that someone who enjoys a vicarious self-inflation through worshipping and identifying with the famous personage may suffer profound narcissistic injury and consequent anger when that fame self-destructs. Mutatis mutandis, a contemporary Iago who bitterly envies a celebrity may take perverse delight in his Othello’s ruination.
I wonder if Winehouse’s exceptional emotional and physical vulnerability somehow excited an especially repellent reactive sadism, a storm of Schadenfreude. She had become a pitifully tiny wraith, her anorectic body grotesquely tattooed, her famous beehive hairdo a grotty mare’s nest.
Sheer vocal beauty
Amy’s most grievous fault is that Winehouse’s singing is scanted, with undue emphasis placed on the media circus that haunted every move of her descent into darkness. She seems to literally dematerialize before chirring, flashing cameras. One gets the unsettling impression that the director has become what he beheld.
Infinitely more powerful are the few scenes that capture her exquisite ability at sculpting songs. In a studio recording sequence, she modulates the last line of “Back to Black” repeatedly until she achieves precisely the right nuance. I’m hardly the first to put her up there with Sinatra and Fitzgerald both in that ability as well as her sheer vocal beauty.
At the zenith of her problems, she recorded “Body and Soul” with her lifetime idol, Tony Bennett. When she stumbles away after a botched take, trembling with shame, he tells her gently not to worry, to take all the time she needs. She does, and both of them, together, get it wonderfully spot-on. Kapadia intimates that Bennett embodies the warmth she needed from her father and never got. There’s nothing bathetic about this declaration of the camera.
Throughout her career, she tried her hand and impressively succeeded at every new musical format that evolved over an amazing decade’s innovations in popular music: girl-band, rock, soul. But, listening to her stunning rendition of “Moon River,” one is convinced that her true vocation from the start was jazz.
Bennett says that no one with this formidable gift should be forced to sing before multitudes. That incredible voice should have enraptured a small audience in one of the smoky jazz clubs of my youth. We have precious few of her jazz recordings, but we are blessed for what she did leave us.
“I think continually of those who were truly great
. . . Born of the sun, they travelled a short while towards the sun
And left the vivid air signed with their honor.”
Editor’s note: After we published his “Delayed Suicides of ‘The Forgotten Battalion’” in our December 2015 issue, Dr Greenberg wrote to us to say that he “is not now and has never been Roy Harvey Greenberg, MD”-as his name had appeared. His proper name appears in this review. Our sincere apologies, Dr Harvey Roy Greenberg!
1. Spender S. The truly great. In: Collected Poems, 1928-1953. New York: Random House; 1955.