Monday, September 14, 2015


Amy Winehouse is probably the last (good) pop artist to have a connection with (good) hip-hop music, so this documentary did kind of strike a chord in me (some might make a case for Justin Timberlake or Joss Stone, but not me). I became a fan of Winehouse after listening to her album “Frank” which used some of the same samples & beats as Nas’ God Son album (both artists worked with producer Salaam Remi)…

While collaborations/relationships between Christina Agiulera & Redman or Justin Beiber & Lil Wayne seemed a little forced, Amy Winehouse’s relationships with the likes of Nas (who was strangely not present in this documentary), Mos Def and a pre-Jimmy Fallon Roots seemed a little more organic (side note – anyone find it strange that The Roots played the fictitious talk show house band in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled then ended up being the real house band for Jimmy Fallon’s talk show exactly a decade later?). Sure, Mos Def & The Roots aren't my all-time personal favorite artists (I haven’t loved a Roots album since Things Fall Apart) but they still have an authenticity that a lot of hip-hop artists (on a large platform) don’t.

And lets be honest – any pop singer/non hip-hop artist that wants to prove they’re “down” with rap music or hip-hop culture always loves to namedrop post-’99 Outkast Andre 3000 or Busta Rhymes (no disrespect to either artist but those guys and their personas are a bit “safe” to site). 
Although troubled, for reasons that this documentary delves in to, Amy Winehouse seemed like a pretty authentic person (bratty, self-destructive & complicated too) so it makes sense that she would align herself with other authentic artists even if they were outside her genre.

While Amy isn't exactly a “groundbreaking” documentary in the vein of Stories We Tell, Pina, Leviathan or The Act Of Killing (a few recent films I personally feel are keeping theatrical documentaries alive) it still isn't formatted like a boring/run of the mill music documentary that’s 50% interviews/50% concert footage. A large majority of the film is made up of archival footage took by family & close friends, personal pictures, old audio recordings and even old answering machine messages left by Amy (style-wise Amy is similar to recent documentaries like Black Power Mixtape or Soderbergh’s And Everything Is Going Fine). What I appreciated most about Amy is that we actually saw her love of (all) music (filmmakers often forget to focus on what makes a musician stop wanting to be just a fan and become a contributor).
Director Asif Kapadia also made it a point to focus on the music (sonically, Amy sounded like a music engineer worked on the film). You wouldn’t think from watching the trailer but even though this is an incredibly intimate film, it's still very much a “big” theatrical experience (not saying it cant be enjoyed on a laptop or phone, but seeing this big makes it worthwhile).

Before her untimely death, Amy Winehouse was making unsavory headlines for a good five years. If you spent a semi-decent amount of time on social media or just reading a newspaper, you’d know this even if you didn’t listen to her music. Asif doesn’t spend a good part of his movie shining a spotlight on that aspect of her life (although there are certainly a few montage sequences that chronicle her tabloid escapades). Instead he focused more on her demons and, more importantly, where they came from. Her story isn't that much different from a Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin or Kurt Cobain. The tortured/troubled artist isn't anything new. But very few films delve deep in to the root of the problem (even a great film like Last Days doesn’t get too deep in to the “who/what/when/why” of Kurt Cobain’s depression). And, like a lot of tortured/troubled folks, the root of Amy’s problem, in my opinion, were her mother & father. Amy does not paint the most flattering picture of her dad. In the first half of the film he’s made out to be this emotionally unavailable part-time dad and in the second half he comes off like this opportunistic enabler. Obviously editing went in to how he was portrayed but there’s enough factual evidence (documentary or not) that makes it hard to not give him a side eye. I mean really – if your daughter damn near overdoses and requires numerous interventions, why would you continue to push her to perform (…make money) instead of going to rehab? And I know some folks might roll their eyes at the age-old exploration of the relationship between the unavailable dad and the insecure daughter, but the father/daughter relationship is an important & complicated one that I imagine goes deeper than most films have dared to go. I don’t want to use this review to bash Amy Winehouse’s father, but I’m almost certain anyone who sees this will come out judging him in the end.

128 minutes is a nice chunk of time to dedicate to any movie, let alone Amy Winehouse, so there is a level of dedication you need in order to sit through this, but the payoff is certainly worth it. Amy does carry some of the intimacy of a documentary like Stories We Tell and Asif manages to fit an entire life in to one film without really skipping much (no matter how short-lived Amy Winehouse’s life was, that’s still a difficult task).


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