Movie Review: Amy
By Ben Gruchow
July 13, 2015
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.
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.