By Bill Arceneaux
There is a startling intimacy to the documentary Amy—about the late Amy Winehouse—that keeps us glued to the screen. Of course, the Winehouse depicted in early home movies was quite the charming sweetheart, singing to and hugging friends left and right. She had an infectious energy and a bright light, which attracted people to her like moths. Some people with honest intentions, others… not so much. This attraction to her and her exploits concerned me.
The highly personal approach to showcasing her life and career, while successful at garnering empathy and engagement, brought up an upsetting question. Were we taking part in more harm to the singer, exploiting her private moments even further? Is this just mere vicarious indulgence?
I should admit to knowing relatively little about this woman. My knowledge of Winehouse was made up of crude cell phone footage of her doing what appeared to be cocaine onstage. I believe I likened her to Courtney Love at rock bottom status and quickly moved on to other topics. What a jerk I was. Amy makes her feel like a close friend or relative, spiraling downwards fast with no support to cling to and nowhere to hide. It’s hard to “know” someone after only two hours of culled together footage spanning many years, but that’s what we end up feeling—that we do/did/could know her or someone like her.
It’s a tragedy in the truest sense of the word. A young flame is flickering and fading before our eyes, well before its wick has reached the wax. Thoughts brought up by the gut-punching ending make me suspect that she “knew” or at least felt her time had run out, and gave up intentionally. Broken bonds of trust, being used, and problems not taken seriously enough—it all pulled her down, and deep. To hear certain people be interviewed in voiceover, trying to make excuses for their behavior and actions as well as non-actions is sickening. Something could’ve been done to pull Amy back from the brink.
Throughout, I couldn’t help but think back on comments I made when much younger about Anna Nicole Smith. In hindsight, her story was, too, a sad one, that didn’t nearly deserve the level of mockery it gained. For whatever reason, we look down on famous people as much as we worship them. The media generally recognize this and feed us all we can consume. We’re gluttons with no end, both for liking and disliking others. It’s vicious and monstrous.
Amy is just as much an exploration of a person as it is a cautionary tale and commentary. If there is one thing I pulled from my viewing, it’s to be kinder to others and try to understand that everyone has their stories and baggage. At one point in the film, Winehouse puts it bluntly “Just let me write and sing.” Why couldn’t we? Why couldn’t they? Are we the addicted ones?
No, this movie is not one last exploitation. No, this film is not a last ditch effort to cash in. It’s scathing, it’s personal and it’s insightful. For Amy to be like Amy herself is an accomplishment unto itself. She was one of a kind, but not a scenario that can’t be repeated. It’s a story that’s been told time and time again, but never quite as devastatingly sad. I just wanted to give her a hug and tell her it’d all be ok. Thankfully, I think we’ll all wish we could’ve done that. I may never listen to Rehab again. Its new context is just too painful. The fact that I didn’t catch on more quickly to what that song was saying is too painful. Amy is no cheap tear-jerker, nor is it really “toying” with our emotions. It’s just telling it like it is. And that is scary.
5 / 5 *s
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