Treating someone as a means to an end rather than an end in them self is to not truly love someone. Caring about others requires the consideration of their conscious well-being, seeing that they have hopes and dreams, and pains and fears. But, when people rise to the status of idol, many seem to equate that success with the forfeiture of personal privacy and the becoming of a product rather than one that creates a product.
The documentary Amy lovingly paints a portrait of the young, vulnerable, and fragile Amy Winehouse; a woman that loved music – one that was a true Jazz singer and should be regarded as great as one of the greats, according to Tony Bennett – and seems to have, in part, used it as a language to express an inner pain which plain language cannot. Winehouse died from the damage caused by drugs, alcohol, and other unhealthy tendencies, but those habits seem to have stemmed from something that tormented her since childhood. Mental illness such as depression and related conditions are known on a superficial level by most, but are only understood by those that live with them simply because there are no words that can paint clear to others the agony of these deep, invisible wounds.
The documentary is made up of an eclectic collection of footage including home-movies of Amy as a child, self-shot videos with friends, interviews, and the plenty of paparazzi video taken during her height in the media spotlight. And the narrative is driven with interviews by her family, best friends, and musical associates. Due to the nature of the video collected, the picture quality jumps all over the place. But since most of the documentary consists of archival video, it’s not the fault of those that put it all together. Wading through all the video available, finding the right parts, and putting it together into this touching narrative is evidence of the love the documentarians have for their subject.
I knew very little about Amy Winehouse apart from the unavoidable tabloid and celebrity gossip news that fed off of her misery and mistakes. Her music isn’t my taste and I don’t usually seek out inane celebrity gossip, but Amy does such a great job of taking down the celebrity icon wall of Amy Winehouse to focus in on the fascinating human being that she was.
In her earlier days, through playful and candid video with her and her friends, Amy is shown as a sweet person that has wit and charm that can make you smile, laugh, and understand why people were drawn to her. She retains this personality through the first few years of her growing career. She is loved and loves deeply. She has a passion for music, but never for the spotlight of an icon. She never thought she was going to be famous, and she really didn’t care. She originally thought that her kind of music wasn’t the type to attract an extremely wide audience. She was content playing for smaller, more intimate crowds at clubs. But, even then, she suffered. She thought that she was different than others – not in an “I’m an important, special person” way, but because she recognized that the way other people seemed to feel and acted conveyed a lot more happiness. At that time, Amy didn’t know what the term depression meant, but knew too intimately what it was. She had even make a remark to her parents that hinted at her bulimia as a child. However, in the way she said it, they didn’t think anything of it.
“Vulnerable” was a common word many different people used to describe Amy in their interviews. “Self-sabotage” was also a description used. Her quirky personality, remarks, and actions early on seemed like a way of trying to be steps ahead of her torment. She also loved boys. Especially one named Blake, whom she later married. She would seem to do anything for him. But, he’s the one that introduced her to cocaine in 2007. Her quirky, fun, and outgoing personality was gradually traded for alcohol and drugs. The friends that she was closest to growing up with said that the old Amy was warped into something miserable.
Because of the nature of the earlier personal videos, those happier times for Amy while rising to stardom in the early 2000s is contrasted with a low-resolution picture that has a lot of digital noise. It’s ugly, from a technical standpoint. But, as the years went on and her stardom rose, the video quality from concerts and interviews became clearer while her joy faded.
There are also many high-definition aerial shots of locations mentioned, such as her home, city streets, and getaway spots, intercut that provide a visual refresher to the audience.
It may seem antithetical, but fame and fortune only pushed this vulnerable young woman down. The more famous and sought after she became, the more alcohol and drugs she sought after so to dull the misery. As if the incessant flashing and shuttering cameras of the paparazzi were aggravating an open, raw, and burning wound. It’s hard not to feel contempt and a sliminess toward these kinds of photographers and reporters. There is one particular scene in which Amy gets out of a vehicle, visually distressed – disorientated, and drunk and/or high – with paparazzi surrounding her snapping away with their cameras like vultures swarming in on a dying animal. And watching that, it was hard not to think “what the hell are you people doing!? Stop taking pictures, this woman is sick and needs help now!”
The tabloids reveled in making her a joke, and the mainstream media also fed off of continuous stories of her self-destruction.
But, there was one instance which was at the 50th Grammy Awards that was a shining moment for Amy which is also a scene fortunately in relatively high-resolution. She stood at a microphone with her band waiting to sing when Tony Bennett – her idol – comes onto the stage to announce the winner of a category she was nominated for. She won. Throughout this event, seeing her idol announce that she was winning an award, true happiness and ecstasy radiated from her eyes. The look on her face was pure joy, unmistakeably; something that drugs and alcohol could never give her. It was from a legitimate joy from success that she was chasing, and for that night, she had it.
Unfortunately, the invisible, burning opened wound of mental illness didn’t allow it to last. In 2011, her body couldn’t take anymore alcohol, drugs, which was compiled onto by the damage from bulimia. Fame and fortune cannot dull that kind of pain, but she was ultimately too vulnerable to not hold on to the help that could have eased that pain.
In her death, predictably, the vultures closed in on her corpse for one last feeding frenzy, but this time in the narrative of sorrow. Perhaps, in some genuine way, they were sorrowful for losing someone whose vulnerability gave them sustenance.
Amy wipes away their narrative, and reveals a master Jazz singer that became trapped in the wrong spotlight.