PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

'Amy': She Was All About the Music

As sad as Winehouse's story may be, Amy is gorgeous and provocative, too.


Director: Asif Kapadia
Cast: Amy Winehouse, Mitch Winehouse, Blake Fielder, Mark Ronson, Tony Bennett, Juliette Ashby, Lauren Gilbert, Nick Shymansky, Yasiin Bey
Rated: R
Studio: A24 Films
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-07-03 (Limited release)
UK date: 2015-07-03 (General release)
Gotta get this song down before I leave tonight,

But my hair just does its own thing and I gotta look all right.

And I gotta write a chorus but words elude me now.

I have to get this down before I leave somehow.

-- Amy Winehouse, "Procrastination"

"Whenever I write anything sad, I never let it just be that way," says Amy Winehouse. "I put a moral or a punchline in it." Even before she's a star, before she quite admits to writing songs, as opposed to "a few poems," Winehouse has a giddy but also reasonable sense of who she is and what she wants to do. Early in Asif Kapadia's terrific new documentary, Amy, her self-reflection leads to a recording of 2003's "Stronger Than Me", where she not only offers a moral, but also a sly commentary on that moral. "Don't you know you supposed to be the man?" she sings, "Not pale in comparison to who you think I am."

Even as the breakup song suggests familiar disappointments, its punchline raises the question of impossible expectations that so often plagues celebrities, sometimes with their friends and family members and always with strangers who think they know them. The movie makes the case that Winehouse's short life and precipitate death at 27 are shaped by the differences between what she knows and what anyone else can possibly know, or more to the point, what anyone else imagines.

Some of that imagining is a function of the artist's public performances, here offered up, by definition, as recordings. Much of this material is provided by her first manager and longtime friend Nick Shymansky, who, it turns out, filmed many of their early adventures, including road trips, visits to studios, performances and rehearsals. But even as his footage provides all kinds of intimate and even spontaneous-seeming moments, it also reveals that Winehouse is a brilliant and canny self-performer, mindful of her effects and her gifts.

The film opens on just such a moment, when, during a sleepover with girlfriends in Southgate, 1998, 14-year-old Amy sings happy birthday, her voice rich and her presentation fully mature. It's a little unnerving, to see her so developed without much in the way of formal training. As the awkward home-movie camera only sort of keeps up with her wholly mesmerizing show, you're inclined to see another element too, whether you seek signs of her future or even reasons for her addictions.

You see none of that, of course, because she's 14 here, giddy with her own talent. Still, what you can't see is as important as what we can, as the film cuts to scene after scene of Winehouse on and off stages, with and without her signature mascara and teased hair, alone and surrounded by people. The people range widely, and you start to wonder, sometimes, how they miss what you know is coming, or how they might have allowed it. Nick Gatfield, who signed her to Island Records, recalls pretty much what you see illustrated here, that "she was a complete force of nature," with a typical 18-year-old's attitude, but also an undeniable "charisma." When Amy smiles at the camera, you might think you see Nick describes, that she "could make you feel so important and then, all of a sudden, not important, then so important again." Under his voiceover, you see her riding in the back of a car back in 2002, his camera swinging for his own face to hers, both fresh and exhausted and not nearly prepared for what awaits them.

Such amateur footage is testament to how common it's become to record all experiences. Before Facebook and marketing campaigns, these images document and celebrate time together, not necessarily significant at the time, and not necessarily conceived for imminent public view. That public view evolves as Winehouse becomes famous and also tabloid fodder, the experience she describes repeatedly as odious, as the dismal downside of being able to sing for a living, not precisely an option she envisions when she's 18: "I'm lucky I can do it, "she says during a very early interview, "I didn't think it'd be a career choice."

As lucky as she might have been, the film charts her decline in fortune in carefully selected material, archival interviews and images as well as some drawn also from private ("previously unseen") sources, and in this, Amy resembles Kapadia's excellent 2011 documentary, Senna, mixing homemade footage and TV reports. Winehouse's story occurs some years after Ayrton Senna's (though before everyone had a cell phone), so that more types of images exist, which is not to say they're any more revealing. Both films underscore how little you can know based on footage of stars or stars in process, footage exemplifying the very concept of self-invention on screens.

This means you're always aware of Winehouse as a fiction, self- and other-devised, in some sort of control and in none at all. Interviewees discuss her passion and her damage. "She needed music like it was a person," observes Same Beste, and Yasiin Bey says astutely, "She didn't know how to be that thing she had been driven to become by her success." Childhood friends Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert look back on better times and losses, their realizations that she drinking too much or bulimic or taking up heroin with her bad news on-and-off-again boyfriend Blake Fielder-Civil, who appears at one point to pronounce he had been "wasting his time" with her.

It's a galling moment in a film full of tragedy and dread, always twisted around what you know is coming but isn't always visible. You might come away with the idea that someone should have saved her from Blake or her dad Mitch, who abandoned the family when Amy was nine and reappeared later (someone in the film observes, "She worshipped the ground he walked on"). Interviews with Mitch or Amy's mother Janis indicate the tensions you might expect, as well as the reluctance to speak candidly. Janis recalls her inability to stem her young daughter's rebelliousness ("Oh mum, you're so soft on me," she remembers Amy saying, "I can get away with murder") and Mitch maintains that she had to want to get clean before anyone else could help.

But the images say something else, too, that her descent was visible and drastic, and by extension, that no one did enough. She loses weight, her face gaunt and collarbone ghastly prominent. She staggers around her home in Camden or on stages (her final gig in Belgrade, Serbia is particularly distressing to see again), she rushes from hotel doorways to cabs, harangued by reporters, and she hides away when she can, saying she's not suffering from "depression" because she can "pick up my guitar for a few minutes and feel better." When friends suggest she go to rehab but her father says she doesn't need it in November 2005, Winehouse writes and records "Rehab" and spins into a whole new kind of success orbit, leading to five Grammy awards in 2008, which lead in turn to more addiction, more chaos, and some brutal jokes on US late night TV.

These jokes are just cruel now, knowing what follows, but they speak also to the gaps between experiences and images. As sad as Winehouse's story may be, Amy is gorgeous and provocative, too. It's the film's own great punchline, that as much as you might imagine you're seeing Winehouse here, you never forget that you're not.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.