Amy: The talent and the tragedy

The film about Amy Winehouse tells a sad short story.

Amy Winehouse (photo credit: PR)
Amy Winehouse
(photo credit: PR)
They tried to make her go to rehab, she said, “No, no, no,” and then she died. That’s basically the story told in the new documentary Amy , about the short and tragic life of singer/ songwriter Amy Winehouse.
This very sad new film, directed by Asif Kapadia, was one of the hottest tickets at the recent Jerusalem Film Festival. There is a lot of footage of Winehouse performing (I wish there been more) and in-depth interviews with the friends and former manager who tried to help her but couldn’t. These interviews are what make the film different from an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music . But it doesn’t give us any more insight into what drove this phenomenally talented young woman to self- destruct at such a young age. Like Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, she was just 27 when she died.
But none of these others were nice Jewish girls gone wrong, and that may be what drew the crowds at the film festival. Winehouse came from a modest Jewish family in North London. Her parents divorced when she was young, and her cab driver father was clearly not there for her much, while her mother seems to have been self- effacing to the point of depression.
What was unusual about Amy was her extraordinary talent. As the movie tells it, she shaped herself into a great jazz singer, virtually on her own. Unlike most kids, she grew up listening to and loving jazz greats such as Dinah Washington and emulated them, blending her love for the music into a style that had a distinctive emotional pull.
Her stature as a performer was such that her idol, Tony Bennett, sought her out to record a duet, Body & Soul . Their recording session, in which she seems understandably overwhelmed, is the one time in the movie when she is unsure about her singing. Bennett said of her, “The great ones that are very talented know just how to turn jazz singing into a performance that’s unforgettable. And Amy had that gift. The fact that she died at 27 years old is just horrible to me. If she had lived, she would’ve been right up there with Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington.”
Their duet was her final recording.
The movie is more focused on the emotional problems and addictions that drove her down than the intriguing question of how this girl from London sang like a jazz diva while still in her teens. Her songwriting, too, was brilliant and seemingly effortless. A record producer recalls that she wrote “Back to Black,” one of her best songs, in about 45 minutes.
Winehouse seems to have understood how talented she was but took little pleasure from her accomplishments. The movie details a familiar path to success, as she was discovered by an aspiring young manager, Nick Shymansky, when she was just 16 and he was 19. He got her a recording contract, and she began writing songs and won fame in England. But from the beginning, she suffered from severe depression and bulimia, and she self-medicated with alcohol and drugs. Her former roommates and Shymansky tried to get her psychiatric help, but her father insisted that she keep performing. Soon, she got rid of Shymansky, who loved her, and found a manager who just wanted to keep her on the road.
Once she met Blake Fielder-Civil, she fell deeply in love with him and got into harder drugs to keep up with him. When he broke up with her, she wrote and recorded the Back to Black album, and when that brought her international fame, he came back to her. The saddest moment in the movie comes when, during a brief time when she stopped using drugs, she won five Grammy awards in 2008. At the party, she confided to a friend, “It’s so boring without drugs.”
“Life teaches you how to live it, if you’re lucky enough to live that long,” Tony Bennett says of her. This movie will make you sad that Amy wasn’t that lucky, but you won’t learn much new about her from it.