Director: Asif Kapadia
Cinematographer: Matt Curtis
by Jon Cvack
I didn’t know pretty much about Amy Winehouse prior to watching this film, figuring she was just another hot pop star per the likes of Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, etc. that met a tragic end. It’s a moment where I’m a tad embarrassed of my pop culture ignorance, and only knew this film was worth checking out after hearing about the documentary on Slate Political Gabfast during Cocktail chatter.
It’s now that I’m a few years past that legendary age of the infamous 27 Club - including members such as Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin - that I realize how young it really is, as I don’t feel that old, and all of them are starting to look younger and younger. Winehouse also passed at that age, revising the peculiarity of that number (though it has been disproven as statistically irrelevant; see the link above). From what I’ve read and seen about most of these individuals, they all dealt with significant inner demons, finding solace in drugs and alcohol. It’s Amy Winehouse who might be the most tragic, where her good looks and edgy appearance became a goldmine for the record companies and pop fans alike, all while battling with a strong heroin addiction. As the documentary repeats again and again, she just wanted to play music and on her terms, but the fandom made her all the more reclusive. It made me recall a moment from Kurt Cobain: Soaked in Bleach where a B-roll video showed Kurt discussing how his dream was to grow old like Johnny Cash, playing his guitar and make music on his own terms. To think both individuals met the same fate is eerie.
The film explores the problems in becoming an ostensible overnight worldwide star, and the pressures it creates on the artist who realizes they’re now responsible for millions and millions of dollars of other people's money. Typically when you hear these types of issues you think it’s the definitive example of first world problems. Instead, the documentary shows us what happens when an individual goes from creating music in a small studio apartment to an entire machine that centers around you. It’s not just the record company, marketing team, and fans, so much as the pressure it puts on the artist to maintain the same level of quality day in and day out for all those depending on you.
Like any great artist, Amy looked to her personal life for her inspiration. What the documentary does so well is demonstrating the personal conflicts she had with relationships, family, and her addictions and how they made their way into the music. We listen to her sing while the lyrics pop onto the screen after having just watched the event that likely inspired them. It’s haunting in how, while the world takes the music as entertainment, Amy was spilling her guts out, using the music to go deep inside her soul and explore the issues that ate away at her. I wasn’t a fan before, but I’m a big fan now. As Tony Bennett mentions, she was up there with any of the great jazz singers - Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington, etc. - individuals who put their heart on the table, giving every ounce of themselves to their music, and creating something real and incredibly rare in the process. The loss of Amy wasn’t a loss of a talented pop star; it was the loss of what was destined to be one of the all time greatest artists of our generation.
I’m not sure why those rare creative geniuses who push the bar forward often end up with their addictions killing them, or killing themselves. I always think of what Hendrix, Cobain, or Morrison would look like as old men. This year Kurt Cobain would have been fifty years old. What kind of music would he be creating? If David Foster Wallace never died, what would he say about social media and these modern methods of communication? Although relatively old, what else would Hemingway have given us during the Nixon administration or Vietnam War? It seems that with all great geniuses who struggle to control the obstreperous carnival in their head is the additional pressure of meeting the expectations of both the fans that love your work and the machine that got you to them, all while trying to control inner demons, accepting that they'll never go away. Amy stuck with me for a few days. It’s a tragedy that seems to happen all too often. What else could they have done? What other magic could they have produced?
BELOW: Giving you a decent taste of her talents
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