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