Thursday, August 20, 2015

Amy Winehouse: Documentary musings I

Disclaimer #1: I had never heard of Amy Winehouse till I saw the trailer for Amy, the new documentary about her life. I had no expectations or pre-conceived notions of her. Having seen it, I recommend it. It is sad, but see it anyway.

On one level, Amy is a story about the vulnerability of youth. It used to be safe, or at least safer, to engage in experimentation in the name of discovering who you are. No more. Embarrassing mistakes, bad decisions, impulsive actions follow you forever -- throw in hard drugs, and you mess yourself up irretrievably.  If I had children, I would make them all see this movie. "Look," I'd say. "This is what addiction looks like, and what it can do to you."

A movie about Amy
This is so much more than a movie about drug addiction, and it's more than a biography. Amy Winehouse's life merits honor, reflection, and examination. Director Asif Kapadia provides a thoughtful chronology of Amy's life and music. But her story is inextricably tied to our media-saturated-everything-on-video culture,  the music industry, and the drug addiction that led to her death at age 27.  He gives her such kind treatment, long overdue given how tabloid press covered her when she was alive. It's a haunting tribute to a lost soul, and this clip captures its feel and texture.

After seeing Amy, I became a little obsessed by the story of Amy Winehouse, for many reasons but mostly this -- on TV, on Youtube, in UK and US tabloids, we essentially watched her die. It is just hard to believe no one intervened in any real way. Watching the movie, it's alarming how small and alone she seemed. One thing that is particularly interesting is the documentary's use of cellphone-captured video -- slice-of-life moments recorded by friends, family, and managers. We see Amy during those the 'downtime,' not when she is in the spotlight -- and it's like being the proverbial fly on the wall. The effect is that we come close, or at least closer, to knowing the real Amy Winehouse.

The 'real' Amy? Even tatted up and made up like a Ronette, she manages to convey a girl-next-door personality, someone easy and down-to-earth. She's a funny, intelligent, eccentric young woman with a unique musical perspective. Amy grew up in a family that had a long history with jazz and ties to the era of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. In her teens, Amy listened endlessly to Sara Vaughn, Billie Holiday, and other great vocalists -- but she was equally influenced by contemporary music trends, hip-hop, R&B, rock. Musically, she was an original -- I marvel that her music escaped me until now. Here is live footage of Amy, in case you've only heard her Grammy-winning hits. Bear in mind she was probably about 25 when this was recorded.

Disclaimer #2: Bob chides me for becoming obsessed with tragic figures. For awhile I was a little obsessed with Timothy Treadwell, the charismatic, eccentric young man that lived with Kodiak bears in Alaska -- until finally one killed him. Treadwell was the subject of the Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man (also a great movie). Some people just draw you in -- and when I find myself wanting to know more about a person, I do the research. The next few posts are outlets for my mini-obsession.

Part II coming up

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