Film Review: “Amy” a compelling and saddening portrait of a vulnerable superstar


The following review may contain some spoilers.

amyAcclaimed filmmaker Asif Kapadia’s Amy is both a harrowing documentary about the music career of uniquely gifted singer Amy Winehouse and a damnation of the conditions and individuals who, in the filmmaker’s mind, contributed to her downfall. The film uses never-before-seen home video and interviews with friends, family and business associates to provide a stirring behind-the-scenes look at who Winehouse was and how she rose to stardom, then paints an often disturbing picture of her life as she went down in flames, pointing plenty of fingers along the way.

The film portrays Winehouse as a once joyful soul who had the talent to be the biggest star in the world but was too fragile to handle that stardom. Winehouse always thought of herself as a jazz singer, performing songs that wouldn’t capture the attention of mainstream audiences, which in her mind was a good thing as she didn’t think she could handle the fame that came with it.

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“I’d probably go mad, you know what I mean?” Winehouse says early in the film.

Winehouse proved to be unfortunately prophetic with those words. The film makes it clear that Winehouse was in her comfort zone in her early days, performing in intimate settings at small jazz clubs. Those clubs proved to be too small for the enormous talent that Winehouse had, however, and soon the rest of the world would discover her, love her, then chew her up and spit her out.

There were major factors along the way that set the stage for Winehouse’s eventual collapse — the separation of her parents at age nine that left her with lasting damage, a lifelong battle with bulimia that her parents ignored, and a move to the London Borough of Camden after she began singing that introduced her to the night life which would bring her in contact with her boyfriend and future husband Blake Fielder-Civil and the heavy drug use that would follow. The film points at the move to Camden as being what set Winehouse on a path of substance abuse that would eventually take her life.

Winehouse is very effectively humanized by the early portion of the film, which makes the downfall more difficult to watch. Superstardom was coming for Amy, whether she was ready for it or not, and as she predicted earlier in her life, she was unable to take it. The film makes no bones about who it blames for helping to make it happen — Fielder-Civil, Winehouse’s parents (in particular her once-estranged father Mitch, who has publicly attacked the film), her manager Raye Cosbert, and, of course, the ruthless British press and paparazzi. Even the viewer may feel guilty watching it all, as the film includes the types of jokes made about Winehouse during her struggles that some of us may have chuckled at back then but seem terribly unfunny when taken in this context.

Whether you buy into the stances the film takes, the finger-pointing helps make Amy an effective, poignant and even powerful film on multiple fronts as it serves as a loving portrayal of her life as well as a biting criticism of the way stars can be treated by the public, the media, and the people surrounding them. From a media perspective, watching Amy served as a harsh reminder of the unfortunate elements of this profession that aren’t always honorable or responsible.

The timing of the DVD release of Amy coincidentally came just two days before the death of former Stone Temple Pilots and Velvet Revolver frontman Scott Weiland, who himself fought the demons of substance abuse for years. In a letter to Rolling Stone, Weiland’s family wrote “Let’s choose to make this the first time we don’t glorify this tragedy with talk of rock and roll and the demons that, by the way, don’t have to come with it.” Amy takes on a similar mindset, one that leaves the viewer with the feeling that this didn’t have to happen, that not enough was done to prevent this from happening, and that when we see it unfolding in the public eye, as it did with Winehouse, to not just dismiss what’s going on as just another case of a rock n’ roll junkie but to recognize that someone needs help and needs people to lift them up rather than cut them down.

Perhaps that’s the lasting impact Amy has. Sure, it does a fine job of giving us another side of Winehouse and making us feel like we know her as “Amy” by the end rather than by the disturbing images of her downfall that ran in the tabloids. But more than that, it makes us remember the human aspect of fame, that not everyone is equipped to handle it, and that if those people always received the love and nurturing they needed instead of being dismissed or laughed at, maybe some of the ones we lost would still be with us.

Theatrical release date: July 3, 2015. DVD release date – December 1, 2015. Rated R for language and drug material.

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2 comments to “Film Review: “Amy” a compelling and saddening portrait of a vulnerable superstar”
  1. so sad substance abuse and loosing her parentsToo much for her she died from alcohol abuse and was a excellent singer who could not rehabilitate. I have many friends die from drug abuse and i am grateful as i had support when i needed it .I am grateful for a higher power and my church L.d.s and a plan of recovery from blood tranfusions after 14 years i am looking forward to harvoni

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