By Jacob Wampfler
“If she had lived, I would have said: slow down; you’re too important… Life teaches you, really how to live it… if you could live long enough…”
If there is one area of film in which I am completely out of my element, it happens to be in the documentary genre. This is not to say I don’t appreciate documentaries; rather, the select ones I view I appreciate deeply. This sentiment is certainly true of Amy, the 2015 documentary about Amy Winehouse, the supremely talented and exceedingly tortured jazz/soul singer. Winehouse’s rise to legend and descent to addiction and a far-too-soon death all happened within my short lifetime. Documentarian Asif Kapadia (also known for his award-winning documentary Senna) truly uses this aspect of Winehouse’s life to bolster his portrait of the actual artist. Even from a casual perspective, anyone in-tune with music and culture over the past fifteen years saw Winehouse become a celebrity and subsequently crack under the weight of her stardom. This adds deep emotional weight to Amy, and leaves the viewer with a dark depiction of youthful fame.
From a technical perspective, Amy is a fascinating viewing experience. Almost the entire documentary is comprised of home videos, live footage, and images of Winehouse’s life. We see her joke around with friends, fall in love, write songs, record tracks, and perform on stage. However, Kapadia also shows Amy’s darkness; her addictions and struggles are hauntingly portrayed. Perhaps the most chilling aspect of this darkness is that we already know the end of the story. The viewer, therefore, sees and hears what serves as foreshadowing, a beginning of the end. From the mouth of Amy herself, we hear words that convey a crippling fear of stardom and fame that are hard to shake. Amy Winehouse came of age in a world where everyone was watching. One can’t help but wonder if this simple fact led to her downward spiral.
This documentary also gave me a deep and wholistic appreciation for Winehouse’s music. She was real, raw, and visceral in her lyricism and vocals. In a musical culture of manufactured lyrics and plastic vocals, Winehouse sought to be a bonafide original. She became that and more, so much so that Tony Bennett, Winehouse’s idol, was captured in the documentary saying that she should be remembered with the greats: Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Winehouse’s music will live on, and this documentary pays true homage to her as one of the greatest musical talents of our generation.
What else can be said about this sad tale, I’m not certain. Amy Winehouse was a singular prodigy who reached for greatness and will be remembered for decades to come. But this documentary about Amy Winehouse’s troubled life has a subtle yet unmistakable message: stardom does not come without cost. The weight of fame and spotlight magnifies every flaw, every blemish. As such, Amy exists in a state of paradox. It captures both the remarkable talent and the significant brokenness of an artist whose presence is and will continue to be sorely missed.