Film reviews and more since 2009

Amy (2015) review

Dir. Asif Kapadia

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

We are constantly told two of the cardinal sins of fame that can lead to one’s downfall, or even make it imminent, are greed and power, but what about the lack of self-discipline or discipline in a broad sense? If you grew up fairly undisciplined, allowed to do almost anything you pleased, and, in turn, grew up with the inability to really distinguish right from wrong in a sense of moral guidance, aren’t you just as doomed to fail as the person who wants a few more zeroes added on to their net-worth or some more buildings for his or her already large namesake?

Asif Kapadia’s Amy quietly asks that question whilst giving us an intimate look into the life of Amy Winehouse, the famous pop/jazz musician who took off soaring high in the music career before falling prey to drug and alcohol addiction, which killed her at twenty-seven. Kapadia exercises some fairly commendable self-discipline with this documentary right off the bat, avoiding “talking heads” or on-camera interviews unless they were part of older programs, thus making this film largely built off of home videos and archival footage.

Over the course of two hours, we watch Amy Winehouse, with her often multi-colored hair perched in a thick bun, winged eyebrows, large hoop earrings, and beautiful, powerful voice grow from a simple songwriter, who kept quietly to herself in her flat, smoking weed and writing music to a globally recognized sensation. Unlike most documentaries, Amy starts following Winehouse as she’s building her fame in the early 2000’s, rather than focusing on her childhood. Kapadia works with the massive amount of material he and producers were fortunate enough to obtain of Winehouse, as he covers her many relationships, particularly with Blake Fielder-Civil, the rise of her music, and her subsequent Grammy win over Jay-Z, Rihanna, and Justin Timberlake.

Winehouse’s addiction to cocaine, heroin, crack, and alcohol plays a big role in this documentary, so much so that seeing the addiction contrast with concerts and monumental awards shows paints a haunting picture of fame that we rarely see. An unsettling scene comes during one of Winehouse’s many stints in rehab, where she is told by the person filming her to sing modified lyrics of her song “Rehab” to fit her experiences. The rawness and inconsiderate request is frightening, and seeing personal photos of Winehouse, taken by her undoubtedly under the influence of God knows what, create this tantalizing and uniquely original look into her life.

Returning to the idea of self-discipline, Winehouse’s longtime friend and manager Nick Shymansky, who gets the most time in voiceovers, comments about her upbringing that her lack of self-discipline came from not having much reprimanding as a child. Even Winehouse affirms his statements by saying that she remembers her and her siblings running around the house at a young age, zealously getting into trouble, with little to no comment from her mother. In some way, the children were crying for attention, but attention on a disciplinary level was rarely, if ever, given. With that, Winehouse grew up not knowing when enough was enough. From disrupted concerts that had her refusing to sing, to drug and alcohol episodes that left her inside her flat for days on end, to massive doses of various narcotics, and her struggles with self-harm and bulimia, Winehouse knew no limits and had a difficult time keeping herself on the right path during all this fame.

Juliette Lewis, one of Winehouse’s closest friends, recalls when Winehouse won a Grammy for her album Back to Black. At this time, Winehouse had been clean of all drugs. We see Winehouse gathered before many of her friends in a London theater, showered with love and unconditional applause upon the announcement that she won the award. Shortly after winning, Winehouse, who looks dazed but still aware throughout the entire thing, apparently took Lewis backstage and said, “this is no fun without drugs.”

The only questionable part of Kapadia’s documentary is its critique on the persistent media frenzy that escalated around Winehouse during the time of her drug use and downward spiral. Several scenes in the documentary show Winehouse, and even us, the audience members, blinded by the flashing lights of dozens of paparazzi resulting in a sensory overload I’ve never quite experienced from something like this before. This is meant to criticize the way the media handled Winehouse’s drug and alcohol problems, but isn’t Kapadia doing the same thing, gathering a plethora of different pictures and little-seen footage to publicize Winehouse’s story and troubles?

I don’t lose a great deal of sleep over this predominately because of the fact that where the media’s goal was to sensationalize and garner viewers, Kapadia’s approach seems much more human. He looks at a soul with a great deal of talent, who, however, lacked discipline and, towards the end of her life, when she needed support from family the most, experienced family company during a reality show instead of the quality, one-on-one time she really needed. Amy through everything, plays more like a warning than anything; a warning to artists with unbelievable talent that their personal demons, whether they are muted or present at the time of their fame, can reveal themselves during the most significant times in their life. It’s all about how we can control them, and as we’ve seen through countless documentaries and Behind the Music specials, limiting the impact and influence of one’s own personal flaws with hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of eyes constantly watching and judging is a daunting task.

NOTE: As of this writing, Amy is available to stream on Max.

My review of Back to Black

Directed by: Asif Kapadia.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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