Amy — A cinematic profile of a great singer

What a waste of talent.

This epitaph immediately comes to mind when Amy Winehouse’s name is mentioned.

One of the greatest jazz vocalists of our times, she was probably as gifted as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. But being self-destructive, she was bound to fall, as Asif Kapadia’s biopic, Amy, strongly suggests.

Dead at 27, the victim of alcoholic poisoning, six-time Grammy winner Winehouse could look forward to years of stardom on the concert stage and in the recording studio. But an addiction to alcohol and drugs, plus a struggle with bulimia, tragically cut short her brilliant, short-lived career.

“She was not well mentally and physically,” says her childhood friend from north London, Lauren Gilbert, who watched her unravel in a blaze of lurid publicity.

Amy, which opens in Canada on July 10, charts the rise and fall of a psychologically frail and vulnerable young woman who could not cope with celebrity. In 2003, eight years before her untimely death, she said prophetically, “I don’t think I could handle fame. I’d go mad.”

It’s debatable whether Winehouse succumbed to madness, but it’s a certainty that liquor, crack cocaine, heroin and an eating disorder were the cumulative causes of her death on July 23, 2011.

Winehouse, who rose to stratospheric heights on the strength of moody songs like Back to Black, Rehab and You Know I’m No Good, was born in a northern London suburb in 1983, the first child of Mitchell and Janis, a taxi driver and a pharmacist. They split up when she was nine, the age at which she was placed on anti-depressants.

Amy, whose narrative drive relies heavily on home movies, opens on a jolly note in 1998 as she licks a lollipop while singing happy birthday to herself. It’s one of the heretofore unseen videos which enliven this elegiac film.¬†Interviews with Winehouse’s friends, managers and associates add depth and texture to it.

What’s abundantly clear is that Winehouse wanted to be a singer, though she never imagined that singing would become a “career choice.” Possessing an unflattering opinion of contemporary music, she wrote her own songs, all of which were grounded in deeply personal experiences. Simon Beste, a pianist, claims she had an “emotional” bond with music.

An informal person without airs, she struck one British record executive as a “force of nature, a classic north London Jewish girl with a lot of attitude.”

At some length, Kapadia explores her relationship with Blake Fielder, who supposedly introduced her to drugs. She was deeply in love with him, but was thrown into grief when he returned to his girlfriend. “She went nuts after that,” recalls a friend, saying she found solace in drink and drugs. Winehouse’s attraction to drugs was nothing new. As a teen, she was consumed by a desire to “smoke weed.”

Eventually, she and Fielder wed, but the marriage broke up. In the meantime, the couple binged on drugs and alcohol, which messed up their lives.

The hit song, Rehab, transformed her into an international star, but personal demons continued to haunt her. Mitchell¬†Winehouse, who’s portrayed as an absentee father during her adolescence, checked her into a rehabilitation center. The treatment worked, but she relapsed, a troubled soul governed by addictions.

Such was her unsettled state that, in a notorious concert in Belgrade, she shuffled around the stage aimlessly and declined to perform, prompting members of the vast audience to demand a refund. “She really blew it,” observed a TV commentator.

Nearly four years after her untimely passing, Winehouse is fondly remembered by Tony Bennett — her last singing partner and idol — as “a natural, true” jazz chanteuse.

Amy leaves the same impression: Winehouse was an unusually gifted singer and songwriter who abused her body and left this vale of tears far too early.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal, SheldonKirshner.com
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