By the time Amy Winehouse rose to fame, her tragic end already seemed inevitable. The ruined performances, her jailed partner in drug abuse – hell, even the title of her biggest hit, “Rehab” – all foreshadowed her joining rock’s “27 Club.” Her short, harrowing saga was a brief ride that only rarely detoured from its path toward train wreck.
Five years after her death, Amy – which captured the Academy Award for Best Documentary and a Grammy for Best Music Film – opened on July 3, 2015 in New York and Los Angeles with some the best ever first-day numbers for a documentary film, with $37,000-plus averages for six locations. It gives its subject the kind of up-close and respectful treatment accorded Kurt Cobain – another member of the 27 Club – in Montage of Heck. Unlike Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and other Club members, Kurt and Amy came of age in an era of self-documentation. It’s almost shocking how much material there is, and the filmmakers say they deliberately left out the most graphic. It’s clear what that was, and a relief that it was omitted.
What they left in is plenty dark and painful, but fortunately punctuated by some happy surprises: Amy as a 14 year old hanging out with friends. (They would later cut her out of their lives when her self-destructive actions became unbearable.) Amy getting clean after her despicable husband is jailed. Amy in a brief healthy relationship. Amy recording with her idol, Tony Bennett.
Those brief detours make the ruinous end even more heartbreaking. Here is a uniquely talented singer, a combination of Janis Joplin (yet another 27 Club member) and Billie Holiday in ways remarkably right and oh so wrong. Like Lady Gaga, Queen Latifah and others, Amy could have moved between rock, pop and jazz at will, excelling in all. But her self-destructive combination of bulimia and drug and alcohol abuse has lost the world yet another artistic evolution.
The film is a deft pastiche of footage ranging in quality from cell phone to high def. This revealing material is woven together brilliantly, and with seamless sound quality that must have taken some intense behind-the-scenes effort.
The footage often illustrates Amy’s lyrics, which in turn capture her life experiences. There’s no hiding behind metaphors: her lyrics tell her life experiences and emotions straightforwardly and in painful detail. Any gaps are filled in by interview subjects – the movie’s two bad guys, her husband and father, both of whom exploited her to shocking degrees; her family, friends and managers, who provided photos, footage and illuminating perspective; and her peers, including a thoughtful Tony Bennett and a moving Yasiin Bey.
The director’s decision to use only the audio from these interviews works well. Between the footage and photos from Amy’s personal life, concert and in-studio performances, newscasts and paparazzi photos, and from superimposed lyrics, it’s a lot to take in. We are left exhausted, grieving and disgusted, haunted by what ifs.
More recently, after a move from New York to Los Angeles and a long stint in interactive multimedia, Laura moved into internet/social media marketing for music and other clients. In 2012 she wrote The Cusp of Everything, a novel incorporating a full soundtrack. In 2014 she wrote and performed a one-woman show about online dating, All the Wrong Men. Currently she is working on a new show, My Life as a Shiksa, and workshopping her play, Worldly Possessions.