There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your Netflix and Chill time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Amy, which is streaming over at Amazon Prime.
There’s a heartbreaking moment about three quarters of the way through Asif Kapadia’s remarkable Amy where we watch Amy Winehouse, on a small club stage an ocean away thanks to some visa issues, react as Tony Bennett announces that she had won Record Of The Year for “Rehab.” She seems so totally and sincerely stunned, and the b-roll footage sourced for the film makes the scene feel profoundly intimate. Amy went on to win five of the six categories she was nominated in that year (losing just Album Of The Year to Herbie Hancock). It’s a heartbreaking moment because by the time you get there know you’re witnessing the high water mark of her professional career. Within just over three years she would be dead from an accumulated combination of alcoholism, heroin and crack cocaine, an eating disorder, and a dysfunctional family.
Kapadia’s film does the world a great service in correcting the record on Amy Winehouse while doubling as a well-balanced cautionary tale. So much of the final years of Amy Winehouse’s life was lived out on the front pages of tabloids, with photographers capturing every lipstick smeared drunken stumble home to her Camden apartment, that it’s easy to lose sight of the all-too-human woman at the source of those now obvious cries for help. With Amy we go all the way back to trace her humble roots and find a goofily charming teenager who doodled hearts all over her pages of lyrics which themselves belied a lived-in old soul with a voice to match. Her first album, Frank, was a soulful stab at jazz that put her on the map and set off a palpable momentum towards fame that even Amy wasn’t sure she wanted. When she tells a Frank era interviewer, "I don't think I'm going to be at all famous. I don't think I could handle it. I think I would go mad," you get the same feeling you get during a slasher movie when the sorority girls are deciding on whether or not to go down to the basement. So many scenes in Amy are perfectly tuned to twist a knife like this, but it never comes off as melodramatic, making sure to keep her humanity and fragility front and center. We see an almost systematic dissection of the perfect storm of enablers in her life that kept her on the path she struggled so hard to get out of.
On a technical note, after having watched so many music documentaries now, it’s so refreshing to not be staring at talking heads. Kapadia landed so many interviews with people who were front and center for Amy’s manic rollercoaster through life, but only a fraction of the time are you hearing a voice and seeing the person who’s speaking. It makes you wonder how much footage is being lost on films that dedicate so much visual real estate to people who aren’t the subject. And good lord the footage here is deep and cumulatively devastating. We see everything from a baby-faced teenage Amy singing Happy Birthday (it’s bittersweet to note that not even she can really make that song sound good), shooting pool before shows, on a boat in New York shortly after getting married, in the middle of various rehab stints, and on. It’s a wonder Kapadia was granted so much access given how scathing this film is towards practically everyone who should have been looking after Amy. Parents, lovers, friends, in the end you’re responsible for yourself, but Amy really leaves you with a much greater, and sadder, understanding of the uphill road her talent had to travel.
It’s easy to assume that most people have seem this by now, since it’s been out over a year, managed to bring in $22 million during a short theatrical run, and recently won the Oscar for best documentary feature, but if you haven’t, maybe assuming you know what to expect or think that the world doesn’t need another film about how “fame kills,” you absolutely owe it to yourself to take to absorb this affectingly tragic film.
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.
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