Whenever I watch films about artists with issues or peccadilloes (cf. JODOROWSKY’S DUNE, AMERICAN SPLENDOR, LOVE & MERCY, et al.), I get this naive idea in my head that, “Of course, I don’t want to be as fucked up as that artist, but if I could just dip my toe into that pool of mad genius….” I think, “I have my dysfunctions too. But if I can somehow learn to leverage them somehow while keeping them dialed back just enough so I don’t implode, well then I can be brilliant without the train wreck, right?” Of course, the difference is that if I try, and then inevitably crash and burn, it would just be a clear case of pride going before a fall. When it comes to real artists and truly troubled artists, it’s not a strategy. It’s a very precarious way of life.
I only knew the basic facts about Amy Winehouse before I saw this documentary. First was that Voice. I’d heard it back in the day, and knew instantly what Tony Bennett knew instantly. I wasn’t surprised that it came to endear her to fans and musicians alike, from the up-and-coming-at-the-time Daptone Records stable to Bennett himself. She was brilliant and I never questioned that. And of course, I knew about the spiral. Not the details, you understand. You see enough star meltdowns, and its easy to think we’ve seen it all before. “[So-and-So] found dead after a long period of [insert issue here], wash, rinse, repeat, next case.”
This documentary doesn’t really provide much in the way of missing pieces that lead us to a better understanding of Winehouse’s trials and tribulations, or even necessarily to increased sympathy. I don’t see AMY changing anyone’s opinions, for better or for worse. But I did learn a few new things. I learned how well documented life was in her circle. Because that’s just how the kids do things nowadays. I learned how soulful and penetrating her lyrics are. I had no idea. Luckily, the film literally spells them out for you. If Bennett likens her vocal chops to Billie Holliday’s, then her songwriting rates at least as highly as Cole Porter’s. And I definitely didn’t realize — if one accepts the film’s narrative, and I have no reason not to — how many times Winehouse came so close to pulling herself up out of the spiral. That’s the saddest part, to me.
Not that she didn’t make her bad choices. But trapped as she was in the petri dish that is the music business, constantly under a media microscope, having started out with a life that came close to being as tortured as that of any other troubled artist you could name, what choices did she really have?