To look at Amy Winehouse is to witness someone who never lost control of the room. We are drawn to her. In the early passages of Amy, it’s remarkable how easily she dominates the space around her with just a look or a smile or a laugh; a friend describes her as the sort of person who could make you feel “tremendously important, then tremendously unimportant, then tremendously important again.” Not many people have the ability to achieve that kind of control using effort; Winehouse does it repeatedly, without seeming to try. She’s always switched on, always in showtime mode. And this is before she opens her mouth to sing.
Movie Review: Amy
By Ben Gruchow
July 13, 2015
I will admit to a relative unfamiliarity with Winehouse’s music. Certainly I knew of her reputation, her multiple moments of on-camera intoxication, the show appearances that played disastrously or flawlessly seemingly at random. Winehouse was a fixture of late-night TV hosts, of pundits on cable news, of entertainment articles, almost from the moment she entered the limelight. She was the punchline of many jokes. Her death in 2011 came less like a surprise and more like the period you know is coming at the end of a sentence. Amy is not interested in foregrounding her final days or moments, or the reaction of the world after her death; it’s much more invested in Winehouse’s music, her writing, her early career - and the moments, increasingly brief as the film goes on, where she seems content with herself.
The film is noticeably unsentimental about its narrative, which is the right approach, and it’s courageous in presenting the lows of Winehouse’s personal life as a result of endemic personality traits, instead of outside forces - drugs, alcohol, fame, the media - doing her in. It starts with Winehouse as a teenager, and we can see in just about equal formation the talent and the need to maintain control working, sometimes in tandem but more often at odds. There scarcely seems to be a moment after Winehouse breaks onto the scene where she seems like she wants to be there, or that she wouldn’t rather be unrecognized publicly.
This doesn’t have the ring of false modesty or false humility; Winehouse recognizes and exploits the fact that, yes, she is an immeasurably gifted singer. It doesn’t seem to matter much once the news reaches the public. She puts herself across as someone who prefers the company of a small number of people - not only for the lack of stress, but for the ability to more easily and effectively work the room.
In one of the film’s early highlights, Winehouse gives a tour of her Camden flat to her longtime friend, Juliette Ashby, as well as the cameraman; she affects an over-the-top accent, and it’s a moment where we see and understand how and why she was able to command a stage or a venue even on the downslope of her career. She’s a natural personality, and in the passages of Amy where she’s at her most confident, she all but devours the screen.
When she does become famous, first in England and then in the U.S., that ability to control and own the moment is used by others, and the controlling personality does what it usually does when control is wrested from it or manipulated by others back toward itself: it rebels, fights, and finds ways to break the rules. Winehouse, already predisposed toward alcohol and marijuana by the time she became famous, simply goes further and further. There are moments where you can feel her seeming to test herself, to see how far she can push her limits before the point of no return. These are tense and unsettling moments; more effective are the moments where you look at the expression on her face during an interview or a performance and contrast it with the honed, on-point girl at the beginning of the film, and you realize that Winehouse is maintaining control on autopilot; she knows what to say and what to do, but there’s nobody home.
There is not a moment of Amy that is idle, or unnecessary. We see her rehearse and perform, hearing a voice that never fails to stop everyone in their tracks. Even as Winehouse deteriorates in her personal life - and then on stage - her singing continues to grow, to deepen, to mature. Her duet of “Body & Soul” with Tony Bennett, the last single Winehouse released, is showstopping. Her family and friends, who are present for much of the movie, visibly want to support her when things do go south; they, too, are only human, and as her father puts it, it’s up to Amy to take care of herself, and to make the right decisions. On the other hand: is it also her responsibility to make sure that the outside world comprehends their role in her attempts to better her situation? If an influential media figure misinterprets alcoholism as carefree partying, and downgrades the person in question to the subject of a punchline, are they ethically liable for the potential negative effect they may cause?
This is an important film, one that I believe will grow more prescient and relevant over time. It understands the responsibility that an individual has for managing the successes and hazards of their own life, while also framing those successes and hazards against one of the first (and perhaps one of the most prominent) downward spirals of the social-media age. There is a point late in Amy when Winehouse is set to perform in Belgrade, and she arrives on-stage visibly intoxicated and unable to start her set. The entertainment reporter who covers it can barely contain her glee while proclaiming that Winehouse “blew it.”
It is not solely because of craven entertainment-news coverage that famous individuals burn out or crash any more than it is solely because of our cultural capability of kicking a person while they’re down, nor the camera-ridden paparazzi ambushes (you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise about that on the evidence presented by this film, though; the sequences involving paparazzi only get more numerous and more intense as Winehouse begins to deteriorate, and the sensory overload of camera flashes and shutters intruding right into Winehouse’s personal space is, on its own, more terrifying and destabilizing than just about anything else in the film). It is all of these things, and the individual’s choices and actions, and when you see it happen here, bit by bit by bit, you not only stop wondering what happened, but you start to wonder how they kept it together for so long.