The many things I learned watching the new Amy Winehouse documentary
Amy Winehouse was witty. “I’ll always put a punchline in a song,” she says early in Asif Kapadia’s biopic, Amy. And put in punchlines she did. In her debut album Frank, written when Amy was 19, she is lovesick, and heartbroken, and big-voiced, and funny. In her song “I Heard Love Is Blind” she sings about cheating on her boyfriend, with a stranger who looks just like him. “His eyes were like yours / His hair was exactly the shade of brown / He’s just not as tall, but I couldn’t tell/ It was dark and I was lying down.” Unexpected humor draped in darkness.
I went to the documentary a casual Amy Winehouse fan — I knew the words to “Rehab,” I bought Back to Black, I loved her vocals on Mark Ronson’s “Valerie” — but I left the film an awestruck devotee. The movie is built on footage stitched together, a patchwork of paparazzi shots, hundreds of interviews, and home movies. We see Amy making silly faces in cities across Europe, Amy taking naps in the backseat of cars, Amy in the studio pouring her soul into a microphone. We see Amy doing drugs, Amy falling in love, Amy performing well and performing catastrophically badly. It is a full picture of a person and all of her many sides; not just a stereotype of a talented addict and the vices that tragically killed her at the age of 27. It’s the portrait of an artist, a woman, and a young one at that. Here are just a few things I learned from the film.
She was a once in a generation jazz singer
Amy had chops, she also had knowledge. Amy depicts the singer as a jazz devotee and scholar; she cites influences such as popular artists like Sarah Vaughan but also flexes a deeper knowledge crediting jazz instrumentalists like Thelonious Monk. Early footage of her showcases that brassy, jazz sound with an ability to scat like the best of them. Her idol, Tony Bennett, recognizes her as a jazz singer on camera comparing her to the greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. He says, “She was a natural, a true jazz singer.” He also adds that jazz singers just don’t like singing in front of 50,000 people, Amy was no different.
Many put her in the genius category
Mark Ronson has worked with the best of them. He also watched Amy compose “Rehab” over the course of three frantic days. He has said, “We have this stereotype of young Mozart. Lightening strikes his head and then he furiously scribbles for two hours and has a concerto. She’s the only person I saw who was actually like that.”
Her lyrics were pure poetry
We’ve talked about the wit, but there was more than that in her work; there was total beauty. Amy was a writer, and a brilliant one at that. You don’t need to look further than her lyrics to recognize her ability — and the film studies her lyrics hard, showing them written across the screen to underscore their power. “All I can ever be to you is a darkness that we knew / And this regret I got accustomed to / Once it was so right / When we were at our height / Waiting for you in the hotel at night / I knew I hadn’t met my match / But every moment we could snatch / I don’t know why I got so attached / It’s my responsibility / You don’t owe nothing to me / But to walk away, I have no capacity.”
Being famous was not her dream
Indeed, fame terrified her — and through the flash bulb glare of the paparazzi following her every step, it’s easy to see why. In foreshadowing clips from early in her career Amy speaks on fame and why it’s not for her, “I don’t think I’m going to be all that famous,” she says. “I don’t think I could handle it. I think I’d go mental.”
She was working on a third album, and pretty far along
Amy released two albums; Frank in 2003 and Black to Black in 2006. By the time she died in 2011, she was well on her way to a third album. Her producer Salaam Remi has said, “she probably finished the writing process a few weeks before she passed. As far as I could see, we had 14 songs.”
She was human
This isn’t a revelation but with artists who become stories larger than themselves it is oftentimes easy to forget. Amy was a person with a childhood, and friends who adored her, and a personality far different and more nuanced than what was presented in the tabloids. She loved music, she loved to laugh, she was a bit of a hedonist, she was trying to get better.
Nowhere do you see this more clearly in the film than in footage of her at a friends’ fifteenth birthday, when she is belting out “Happy Birthday.” She is a young girl, surrounded by friends, enjoying the moment; she just is both blessed and cursed with an innate talent that she must learn to manage. As the film shows, she never quite did.