Fame seems to have lost its elusiveness in recent times. As the swarm of reality TV shows engulfs us, it’s easy to think that being well-known has lost some of its lustre – not because being famous isn’t a lucrative deal, but rather, because it’s ubiquitous.
Then you watch Amy, Asif Kapadia’s documentary on the short life of jazz singer Amy Winehouse, and realise that there is celebrity… and there is celebrity. Perhaps one of the most interesting revelations of this moving documentary is that celebrity can still be a cruel – and in some cases, unwanted – outcome.
It’s an undeniably sad portrait of a woman whose talent and natural goodness were burdened by buried grief. A child of divorced parents, Winehouse appears a long-troubled figure, who longs for male approval – starting with her estranged father.
It’s a good film. You won’t be bored. But it’s also hopeless. There is no happy ending to be found in the two-plus hours of what is essentially a young woman’s gradual but sure downfall. And this is what makes it harrowing and heartbreaking.
It’s clear that Amy is looking to point fingers, and it’s a point on which the alleged culprits have taken the makers to task. More specifically, Winehouse’s ‘great love’, Blake Fielder Civil, who broke her heart a couple of times; and Winehouse’s father, who seems to reappear when she becomes famous.
Sure, they’re not sympathetic characters. They don’t redeem themselves in their interviews; the footage of them throughout does too much damage. Certainly, they were cognisant of Winehouse’s instability and inability to stay away from alcohol and drugs. At one point, a doctor soberly explains that Winehouse’s alcohol and drug abuse, in combination with years of bulimia, placed extreme pressure on her body. Ticking time bomb, if you will.
But it’s also a bit simplistic to suggest these “bad guys” are the cause. Like any manifestation of depression, drug abuse and alcoholism (Winehouse succumbed to all three), I would argue that they are symptoms. Like I said, they’re not likeable, but Winehouse must also be recognised as the ultimate owner of her fate. She was, clearly, someone who was not comfortable with fame, more than once declaring that the idea of it frightened her, and that it would destroy her. You believe her when she says she just likes to sing jazz, particularly in front of an intimate audience, rather than a stadium of screaming fans.
But perhaps the key revelation in this film is not that she had an ex-manager and childhood friends who genuinely tried to help her or that she had her once estranged father and a troublesome boyfriend then husband who led her down much darker pathways. It’s when a childhood friend Juliette recounts a sober Winehouse telling her post-Grammys victory that being sober isn’t fun. It’s not a lighthearted moment. It’s one steeped in agonising desperation.
Here is a woman who never asked for fame, but her ridiculous amount of talent got her bundles of it anyway. And an already lost person diminished further into her tiny frame. At one point she seems truly not to live but to exist; a shell of a human, seeking refuge in others.
Which brings me to the other major villain in this tragedy – the media. They were, it appears, quick to celebrate her voice and talent but just as fast to mock Winehouse at her most vulnerable. There’s no denying that they bombarded her. The footage is disturbing – Winehouse, looking a wreck, couldn’t walk down the street without being pounded by the loud demands and blinding flashes of a bloodthirsty media pack. It’s shameful and sad.
Once again, though, it’s but one factor of an increasingly grim whole. Winehouse needed more than rehab. And while there is its share of loving “good guys”, including devoted music producer Salaam Remi and good friend Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def), they weren’t enough to save someone who seemed at odds with her earthly existence.
Amy is out on July 2.