Amy Winehouse’s hit “Rehab” took the world by storm. As did her whole showbiz package: 1960s retro cat-eye eyeliner, beehive hairdo, short-shorts, flats, and sailor tats. It was all way too much—and yet somehow just right.
And that voice. A smoky, 65-year-old American black jazz singer’s voice in an 18-year-old, North London Jewish girl’s body.
The very fine documentary “Amy” showcases Winehouse’s late, tragic, titanic talent, and demonstrates why the concept behind the line from Kurt Cobain’s suicide note, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” is just wrong.
Winehouse is the latest inductee to the so-called 27 Club, the group of hard-partying rock stars who died at age 27, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, bluesman Robert Johnson, Rolling Stone Brian Jones, Grateful Dead member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, and Kurt Cobain. One list says there are 24 members.
Hard-partying? The sad fact is that there’s simply no stopping a severe addiction. You can intervene till the cows come home, you can wheedle, cajole, incarcerate, slap silly, beat bloody, beg, plead—there’s just no forcing an addict to quit whatever the abuse of choice is that provides the escape route.
They have to experience viscerally that the next trip down the rabbit hole will kill them. They have to learn, through need, to want to go to rehab.
But the dual artistic fast lanes to fame—movie and rock stardom—harbor infestations of enablers, who swarm the victim and sabotage the bottoming-out process.
Meet the Enablers
In Winehouse’s case, it was husband Blake Fielder-Civil. A hardcore addict himself, his access to her money and by extension, drugs, was too tempting to allow Amy, let alone himself, to rehabilitate. She did, in fact, go to rehab. But he snuck heroin into her rehab.
And Winehouse did say she would go to rehab—if her long-lost, deadbeat, daddy-issues-bequeathing father (whom she of course worshipped) thought she should.
But dad Mitchell Winehouse, benefiting from her fame as he later was—told her she was fine. As he says, “You can’t force treatment on somebody. I felt it’s Amy’s responsibility to get herself well.” Which is as true as it is meaningless. As a father, the job is to at least make some attempt to arrest a downward addiction spiral, and he’d heard her say she’d go to rehab if he told her to. So maybe it was him who’d said, “No, no, no.”
Winehouse’s manager, Raye Cosbert, who also stood to benefit from her going back out on the road before she was ready, says, “I’d kind of done what I’m supposed to do. It’s up to her family.”
World-class buck-passers all.
Home Video Collage
Director Asif Kapadia’s corralling of Amy’s childhood friends, including Lauren Gilbert and Juliette Ashby, is brilliant. The pooled collection of “I-knew-her-when” stories, and footage like the jaw-dropping 16-year-old Winehouse rendition of “Moon River,” make the documentary special and definitive.
Winehouse’s notebooks are mined. Ultimately, it was talent scout Nick Shymansky, Amy’s first manager, who persuaded the young Amy (who says in 2001, “I didn’t think singing would be a career choice”) that the poetry in her notebooks were songs waiting to happen.
All contemporary interviews are only in audio format, never on camera, which is slightly unsatisfactory, but the performance bits serve as powerful reminders of Winehouse’s incandescent charisma and high-voltage, shocking (freakish, actually) talent.
It’s like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin, Lauryn Hill, Ronnie Spector, and Cher all get channeled through this petite, soul-singing medium.
Home footage further reveals endearing bits and pieces of her life. In one hilarious section, Winehouse improvs as a Spanish maid, giving a tour of her vacation villa, leading to the revelation that she’d have fit right in as a “Saturday Night Live” cast member. She could have easily come up with characters in the league of Roseanne Roseannadanna, and more than held her own with the likes of Amy Poehler, Ana Gasteyer, Molly Shannon, and Kristen Wiig.
One thing is abundantly clear, the camera loved her right from the start. The sloe-eyes are windows to a soul full of light. And of course, darkness. Along with the wowing musical performances, there are outtakes of her later, incoherent, hallucinatory stage disasters.
Roughly 100 people are interviewed, such as producers Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson, manager Raye Cosbert, and musician friends such as rapper Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and Questlove (of The Roots). As Bey says, “She had a big, giant laugh, was quick with a blue joke, was a sweetheart, and she could drink anybody under the table. And she was embarrassed by how well she was doing.”
But the main drama-generator of “Amy” is Winehouse’s addict-codependent romance and marriage with the destructive, angel-faced bad-boy convict, Fielder-Civil.
He’s the source of many of the songs on Winehouse’s 2006 double-platinum, $20-million-selling breakthrough second album “Back to Black,” and it’s easy to see why.
His voiceover interviews are haunting. He shares some of Winehouse’s charisma (he’d have to), and the emotion his voice engenders is powerful. One understands how a young girl could be so thoroughly entranced by this honeyed voice, with its underpinning of an ability to go to every extreme, and the violence and menace buried beneath its seductive surface.
They divorced in 2009. Winehouse said, “The whole marriage was based on drugs.” That’s certainly one manifestation of the notion of “romantic chemistry.”
Jay Leno and David Letterman were making jokes like, “I hear Amy Winehouse will have a cooking show! What will she cook? Well, let’s see, heroin, crystal meth …”
Hilarious. LOL. Right—haha. But unfortunately that was the common refrain subscribed to back then, when the paparazzi were hounding her all over the tabloids, reveling in capturing her at her pallid, distraught, racoon-mascara’d, bloody-toed, missing-toothed worst.
One feels moral outrage. Because the revelation one gets of Winehouse here is that of a sweet, funny girl with an outsize talent, suffering terribly from father-abandonment issues that likely resulted in hurricane-force addictions to bulimia and substance abuse—with no one to shepherd her.
You know what it is? It’s the legs. Slender, fawn-like waif legs, little stems, that just look incredibly vulnerable, regardless of the fact that she had a powerhouse personality.
In the end, her body couldn’t handle a blood-alcohol level 45 times above normal. It stopped her heart. And the diminutive body-bag, being removed from the apartment, is devastating.
As the legendary Tony Bennett said of Winehouse, “She had the complete gift.” The gift of seeing “Amy” is to witness such a blindingly bright talent, and to realize you don’t ever want to be that famous.
Director: Asif Kapadia
Starring: Amy Winehouse, Mitch Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil, Mark Ronson, Tony Bennett, Juliette Ashby, Lauren Gilbert, Nick Shymansky
Running Time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Release Date: July 10
4 stars out of 5