The cool thing about posthumous tragic-rock-star documentaries is the fresh insight from old friends and still-smitten fans and sheepish surviving accomplices, the raw intimacy of the childhood home movies and illicit backstage footage, the cheesy vintage TV appearances, the nerd arcana, and most of all the soundtrack, crazy loud and invigorating even if most of the surrounding context is morbid as hell. The less cool thing is when the inevitable downward spiral starts, the nightmare carousel of rehab stints and onstage meltdowns and incarcerations and emotional carnage, and you find yourself getting queasy and bored and impatient for the movie to just end already, except posthumous tragic-rock-star documentaries only ever end the one way. So then you just feel guilty, as though this person’s inevitable death is partially your fault, too.
With Amy, the new warts-and-all-but-mostly-warts Amy Winehouse documentary (out in NYC and L.A. now, and out everywhere else later this week), this sense of audience culpability is very much the desired effect. It’s a murder mystery where everyone and everything’s a suspect—alcohol, drugs, bulimia, her feral childhood, her dipshit husband, her uber-dipshit father, various soulless music-biz enablers, more drugs, and fame, fame, fame, fame, fame—and everybody’s guilty. Even you; especially you. It’s a game of Clue where every player kills her with every weapon in every room. The going gets pretty rough. Whether this film transcendentally portrays terrible things or just luridly sensationalizes them at great and terrible length can be hard to figure; it would be unbearable either way if not for the anarchic charisma of Winehouse herself. Thankfully, not every posthumous tragic-rock-star documentary starts the same way.
No, this one begins with a 14- or 15-year-old Amy Winehouse singing “Happy Birthday,” casually vaporizing everyone else onscreen both in the immediate moment and for the next two hours. If nothing else this film will remind you of the colossal talent that defined her pre-punchline years, musically (see “Stronger Than Me,” a striking early jam that admonishes her “ladyboy” because he isn’t) and otherwise. Plucked from North London (where her early goals had been to have her own flat so as to “smoke weed every day”) and shoved through the emerging-artist wringer, she comes out the other side a jazz-loving, tough-talking, vaguely hip-hop-signifying, convincingly fame-averse (“I don’t think I could handle it—I’d go mad”), and hilariously raw megatalent, capable of great kindness but incapable of faking it. She hijacks a boring radio chat to profess her hatred for the nameless chump who “put strings on my record”; she sneers and eye-rolls theatrically through a vapid TV interviewer’s non sequitur praise for Dido, a far less mesmerizing singer then doling out just the sort of wan soft-rock pap Winehouse was theoretically going to render obsolete.
At first, workmanlike director Asif Kapadia uses mostly home movies (mostly shot by Amy’s family or her long-suffering, possibly lovelorn, and eventually fed-up early manager Nick Shymansky) full of juddering zooms and unflattering extreme-closeups. Her pores get a disconcerting amount of screen time. It’s an omen. We linger on her parents just long enough to establish that they’re lethally negligent, particularly her father, Mitchell, who hid an affair for years and was generally unavailable. (“I was a coward,” he concedes.) “You should be tougher, Ma,” Amy actually says to her mother at one point, meaning tougher on Amy herself, establishing the theme that all she ever wanted was someone she respected to tell her no, no, no.
So she puts out her debut album, 2003’s Frank, which works as both a proper noun (nobody else in the 21st century even qualifies as “Sinatra-esque”) and an adjective (see “Fuck Me Pumps”), electrifying tastemakers everywhere and the U.K. generally, and then there’s a sizable lull where you get to decide for yourself how clever this movie is. If you’re charitable, it frustrates you with long stretches of maddening inaction as a way of dramatizing how much time she wasted and how frustrated she left everyone else; if you’re uncharitable, well, the dirge starts here and never stops.
She makes the press rounds but insists in plain language that it’s a dead end: “The more people see me, the more they’ll realize that what I’m good for is making tunes.” She gets rolled home in a wheelbarrow a time or two. She writes a ton—she’s a killer lyricist, by the way, stiletto sharp but barefoot casual—but “it’s hard to write something that I’m proud of.” And yes, she meets motherfuckin’ Blake Fielder-Civil, her very own Bobby Brown but with not even a “Don’t Be Cruel” to his name, and soon he’s got her both adorning her handwritten lyrics with cute little rows of cartoon hearts and smoking crack.
Manager Nick, sensing both that greater things are ahead and that those greater things will destroy her, stages a full-court press to get her into rehab, and she agrees, but only if her father agrees, which he does not. In his own words, on camera: “She didn’t need to go to rehab.” (Mitch does not like Amy, insisting among many other things that Kapadia cut out the words “at that time” from that quote, and he may finance his own movie to combat this one, which is unpleasant to even contemplate.) Nick bails in disgust, and soon Amy’s working up the outstanding “Tears Dry on Their Own” and, yes, “Rehab” itself, and then Back to Black’s out and she’s on every talk-show and award-show stage in existence, and we’re made to understand that she is lost. From there you’ve seen this movie countless times. You probably saw it just recently.
It’s hard to watch all this and not think of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, which came out just a few months ago and tells the same rags-to-riches-to-tatters story. It too is lively and celebratory in its own way, and a better or at least more flamboyant piece of filmmaking than Amy, mostly by leaning heavily on elaborate animations based on Cobain’s own drawings and doodles and diary remnants, though that also makes it brutally invasive (violating Kurt’s privacy has long been a cottage industry) and not a little tacky once the downward spiral starts. The thesis is the same: A terrible childhood (and a terrible father in particular) leaves a once-in-a-generation talent ill prepared for the fame and stress and idol worship that follows, and so he turns to drugs, and a lover who turns out to be more of an enabler, and a general path of irreversible and very public self-destruction. Wild success begets total failure. Just like “Rehab” destroyed Amy, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” destroyed Kurt: The latter song’s choir-backed arrival in Montage is strikingly beautiful, but also ominous and funereal to a comical degree. This is where he got up on the cross for you.
From there the animations get crazy aggro, and Kurt wilts visibly and violently in the Spokesman for a Generation spotlight, and Courtney Love seizes control of the narrative, and we’re treated to interminable home movies of the two lovebirds strung out on heroin, and the movie as a whole starts trying so, so, so, so hard to upset you. And then Courtney has a baby, whereupon we’re treated to a leering scene of that baby cooing on an obliterated Kurt’s lap as he nods off, and boom, okay, you win, I’m upset. Montage gets what it wants, but what it wants is for you to feel like garbage.
Amy mercifully never gets quite that dark or trashy—no baby, at least. But there she is digging a piece of broken glass into her skin as Terry Richardson photographs her for the cover of SPIN, there she is being assaulted by an epileptic artillery burst of paparazzi camera flashes everywhere she goes, there she is stumbling through a disastrous rehab stint with Blake (“I’ll do anything you do,” she tells him), there she is hanging from a much higher cross than even Kurt nailed himself to. She had it worse. The internet is worse, the British press is worse, being a woman is worse, crack is (presumably) worse, and trying to sing exacting jazz onstage is worse, as opposed to self-loathing and antagonistically sloppy grunge that was often supposed to sound awful on purpose. (It’s also worth noting for that all its attempted horrors, nothing Montage of Heck throws at you is half as terrifying as the mere sound of Blake Fielder-Civil’s voice here; in the present day he’s off-camera, but he speaks frequently, and it sounds like they lowered a mic directly into his grave. He sounds like the Grim Reaper recapping True Detective. He sounds like Leonard Cohen betting money on the Knicks. Don’t do drugs.)
Amy’s version of Amy hits her zenith and nadir simultaneously: With Blake mercifully in jail, her label minders all but hold her at gunpoint trying to keep her together in preparation for the 2008 Grammys, where she wins five awards, including Record of the Year and Song of the Year for “Rehab.” (She accepts them all remotely from an elaborate set built just for her in London, but at least she’s upright.) The look on her face when Tony Bennett shows up to present Best New Artist—the total shock and total reverence Taylor Swift is always trying to manufacture—is the sweetest, most stirring moment in the whole movie, even if after her long-canonized acceptance speech (“For my Blake, incarcerated!”), the movie adds a gut-punch of a coda: Backstage immediately afterward, Amy celebrates with a long-suffering childhood friend but then admits, “This is so boring without drugs.”
And then she goes right back into the downward spiral (“This is someone who’s trying to disappear”). And then she retreats to Saint Lucia to duck the press, only to have Mitch show up with a camera crew for his new reality show, My Daughter Amy. And then they all but force her back out on tour and she gets booed off the stage in Serbia. And then she struggles through a duet session with Tony Bennett, though she eventually nails it while shrugging off his earnest praise and sending it right back to him: “I’m like you. You’re not like me. I’m like you.” And then she overdoses and dies, triggering a guilt-inducing flood of relief. Nobody can hurt her now, but everyone can exploit her. Even from the grave, all tragic rock stars hear the same cry from the rabid fans they left behind. Here we are now. Entertain us.
Rob Harvilla is Deadspin’s culture editor. Yes, there is one. He’s on Twitter.
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