Amy Winehouse looked like a Ronette, destroyed herself like Janis Joplin, crafted an indelible and improbable album, and died before she could deliver a follow-up. She’s enjoying new fame in “Amy,” Asif Kapadia’s documentary of a nice Jewish girl from North London. Basically an introvert, Winehouse couldn’t handle celebrity. One might say fame killed her.
The film starts with Amy singing happy birthday at a friend’s party. It ends with her funeral; weird that she and her psychic/rock and roll forebears, Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and the Doors’ Jim Morrison all died at age 27.
The film chronicles a life as it becomes a train wreck. Morbidly fascinated, often enervated, we track this tiny diva as the confessional poetry of her early folk-rock morphs into something grander, bluesier, jazzier. At the end, after they sing “Body and Soul” together, one of her idols, the ageless Tony Bennett, calls her one of the greatest jazz singers.
She was, though she’s best known for “Rehab,” the stark, Spectorian hit from her signature album, “Back to Black.” Like many of her other tunes, it’s autobiographical and shot through with hurt.
Winehouse ached all too publicly. She was bulimic, she was an alcoholic, she was a junkie, and she was too small to tolerate all those, particularly in the cocktails she made of them. One of those toxic brews seized her heart and wouldn’t let go.
The film makes clear, however, that she wasn’t the only person to blame in her downfall. Credit the parasitical Blake Fielder, owner of the Trash Club in London, for keeping her on the downward track. Credit her father Mitch, absentee through her childhood and adolescence, who becomes one of her handlers toward the end. Credit promoters who kept pushing her back onto the stage when all she wanted was to do crawl back to her Camden flat and write and play.
But don’t credit her producers or musicians, who loved her and brought out the best in her. Her performance after winning a gang of Grammies in 2008 is a highlight; at the same time, her twilight zone sloppiness at a giant concert in Belgrade – all she wanted to do was disappear, a band member comments – is so pitiable and sad it makes one squirm.
The film gives short shrift to her artistic development; we never find out what turned her on to jazz, which she continually referred to as her bedrock and lodestar. And even though the movie clips, home and otherwise, are candid and the music is largely wonderful, the director didn’t follow up with interviews of such principal codependents as Mitch Winehouse and Fielder, the great love of Winehouse’s life.
Perhaps that’s because, despite these flaws, the film clearly shows how celebrity itself can unravel a person. The flashbulbs glare when Winehouse succeeds – “Back to Black” and “Rehab” won numerous awards in 2006 and 2007, her glory years; the album sold 10 million. And they glare when she fails, becoming the whey-faced butt of late-night television show jokes.
“Amy” is absorbing. But it’s hardly a cure for the blues.
Carlo Wolff covers art for the Cleveland Jewish News.
WHERE: Cedar-Lee Theatre, 2163 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights
INFO: 216-321-5411 and clevelandcinemas.com