Amy, the new documentary about Amy Winehouse, is an unsolved mystery and an all-too-familiar one. You know the story: a mercurial artist dies before her time, leaving behind grieving fans and an unfinished body of work. The movie leaves us pondering why she self-destructed and provides no easy answers.
Over the course of two hours, Amy offers several possible reasons why the critically acclaimed singer spiraled out of control and died of alcohol poisoning in 2011, just three years after winning multiple Grammy Awards for her triumphant album Back to Black. Those reasons include:
- Her parents’ separation when Winehouse was 9 years old — in particular, her father’s infidelity and leaving home. These events led to some serious daddy issues, which clouded Winehouse’s judgment in men, especially when it came to her husband Blake Fielder-Civil. The movie portrays him as a ne’er-do-well leech who dumped Winehouse but then returned when she achieved fame, enabled her drug abuse, and distracted her with his own destructive behavior.
- Her fragile soul, unsuited for fame. Throughout her life Winehouse was treated for depression and suffered from bulimia, two widely misunderstood afflictions whose serious impacts she probably failed to comprehend fully. She was also a dependent personality, which made her vulnerable to the pressures and temptations of fame, especially drug use. Near the end of her life, she was tired of being Amy Winehouse, the star, and wanted to return to the simpler times she lived. But there was no turning back.
- An insatiable appetite for drugs and alcohol. Like Brian Jones before her, Winehouse consumed drugs like candy, living off crack cocaine, meth, and heroin on top of alcohol binges. It was clear to everyone but her that she had no business taking drugs given her vulnerabilities. Why didn’t she stop? When she was alive, she offered no clear reason beyond her admission that life just is less fun without drugs. But the movie provides a clinical perspective: she was an addict who could not stop drinking once she started, an answer so obvious and yet too easy to overlook in a society that still largely treats alcohol as a social lubricant instead of the drug that it really is.
You’ve heard this tale before, haven’t you? Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, and Jimi Hendrix are among the gifted artists who lived their own variations of Amy with the same results. During Amy, one of the narrators is quoted as saying that Amy was living a high-pressure star life for which there was no template. I disagree. The tragedy of Amy is that by the time she came of age, the industry of celebrity had evolved to the point where any number of stars such as Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney had learned how to manage its trappings. But it doesn’t matter. The movie argues that she would never have listened to anyone’s advice. The disease of alcoholism dictated her choices. And yes, she is to blame for failing to treat her addiction properly. It’s easy to judge; but it is not so easy to watch Amy Winehouse throw her incendiary talent away as she fights and loses one struggle after another with her demons. Her loss is ours, too.
Amy reveals other sides to Amy than the train wreck. We gain an appreciation for why she was an artist. Not only was her singing style original, but she also wrote her own songs, with lyrics that conveyed vulnerability, irony, sass, and self-awareness. She took whatever life gave her and molded her experiences into music, most notably with the hit “Rehab,” which now reads like a diary of self-denial. One of my favorite moments of the movie occurs when, in a voice-over, she explains that she started writing songs because she was bored by music she heard on the radio. She shares an inspired lesson: if you don’t like the status quo, create something better.
We also come to understand her own innate grasp of her musical influences. She consciously molded the styles of the jazz greats along with the soul genre. Questlove of the Roots cites her deep knowledge of jazz. Tony Bennett raves about her ability to create a true, pure vocal style. Late in the movie, we witness a tender scene in which Bennett and Winehouse record a duet for his album Duets II. She is clearly spellbound by Bennett, whom she idolizes, and her passion for nailing the perfect vocal is evident. And yet, only a few months after the footage was shot, she would be dead.
But, ultimately, Winehouse’s death overshadows her life in Amy, not because her demise was sudden or shocking, but because she died a little every day. And we may never solve the mystery.