Amy Winehouse As You’ve Never Seen Her (FILM REVIEW)

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I never hopped onto the Amy Winehouse train. To my cynical mind she was merely the singer who they tried to tell to go to rehab, to which she said no with devastating effects. I never gave her a second thought, never lingered on her artistry. In fact, up until I saw Amy, I don’t know that I ever even knew the word artistry could be used in conjunction with Amy Winehouse. I admit now how wrong and arrogant I was. My dismissive ignorance has really bit me on the ass this time, depriving me of an enjoyment for an artist who deserved it. Moreover, I gained a new appreciation for the utter humanity of the singer, whose troubles and failings ended tragically in 2011. I was a jackass, world, and for that I apologize.

Amy is a stunning portrait of a troubled artist whose fame exceeded her true desire and may have ultimately been her downfall. As much as it’s a look behind the curtain at the life of Amy Winehouse herself, it’s a glimpse into the potential devastation caused by fame obsession on the individual, especially one who never exactly dreamed of superstardom. That may sound weird considering the heights she reached in such a short time, but after viewing Amy I was left with the distinct impression that fame was a role thrust upon her by the world. It’s almost an indictment, not of any individual or group of individuals, but of a system of belief that leads to celebrity idolatry.

It’s something we’re all guilty of, to one degree or another. With fame comes the expectation that the famous, in turn, owe us something. They wouldn’t be famous, after all, were it not for us and I suppose there’s something natural about feeling one favor is deserving of another. What we fail to recognize and appreciate is the humanity of our idols; when we talk about “life in the spotlight” we tend to focus solely on the spotlight, disregarding the life it shines on. There is, perhaps, no better example of this dynamic than Amy Winehouse, at least in recent memory.

Featuring exclusive footage from home video recordings, Amy does play out as an intimate look at the singer herself. And on one level, it’s just that. Fans of Amy Winehouse will find a lot to appreciate in the new footage, which offers about as close of a look inside of her life as you can get without being exploitative. This is juxtaposed with voiceover interviews with her nearest and dearest, creating a one-two combo of insight and revelation into the heart of the troubled singer’s life and mind.

By weaving her tale, letting Amy and those closest to her tell the story, we’re given an unflinching look at her rise to fame and how it affected her personally. By all appearances, Winehouse was a singer whose ambitions never reached higher than a smoky room in a divey jazz club. Indeed, she had the voice and the sensibilities to make this work in her favor. As her star rises, however, she retreats deeper and deeper into a world of sycophantic enablers and coattail riders as a means of escape from the perils of a life of acclaim.

To us “normals” it might seem bizarre that fame can be a sort of trap. People have dreams of fame and stardom, spewing vague desires for glitz and glamour without giving a second thought to what that life might entail. Indeed, it takes a special kind of personality to fully embrace this sort of existence and that’s not something we tend to consider when we say “I wish I were famous.” We tend to think of cameras and attention only as a positive, failing to understand what kind of personal turmoil this causes on the individual.

Therein lies the thesis of Amy. It’s ironic, I suppose, that it takes intimate scrutiny to showcase the troubles that intimate scrutiny might induce, but I can think of no other way to capture that dynamic. It’s the catch-22 of media obsession and star fucking that so often gets lost and ignored. Once you’re in the spotlight, it’s impossible to escape. Try, and you’re labeled as a lunatic. All your successes, all your failures, everything about you becomes a part of public domain.

The film is a bit long, sitting at just over two hours. Some people might have problems sitting through it as its length does cause it to drag in places. Despite this, it never feels bloated or overloaded with superfluous information. Director Asif Kapadia (Senna) does a remarkable job at letting the facts speak for themselves, encouraging the viewer to draw their own conclusions while taking them through the trials and tribulations of Amy Winehouse’s life in the spotlight. I found myself surprised by how fascinated I was watching Amy. It’s a testament to Kapadia’s skill at presenting information in an accessible way.

Amy is not merely fan service masquerading as documentary. You don’t have to be particularly into Amy Winehouse to appreciate the story, nor do you need to know much about her to enjoy it. If you’re like me—or, rather, like I used to be—and have a cynical opinion about the woman and her music, you’ll still find something to take away from your screening. Simply put, Amy is one of the best documentaries released this year.

Amy is in theaters now.

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