Sunday, August 23, 2015

Amy: the documentary

I cannot remember how I came about Frank by Amy Winehouse. I think I heard Valerie and loved it and bought it on a whim, sounds about right. It's a great album, and her voice on those songs are stunning. There was a truth and an old sensibility to it that has not dated to this day.
I do remember the first time I heard Rehab, on the radio, I loved it and its 60s soul stylings, I was hooked. The voice was familiar, it took me a while to realise it was Amy, as the song was so different to those on Frank. More polished, more joyous sounding (despite the lyrics), the snappy filmclip was king and she was backed by Sharon Jones' Dap-Kings. I bought Back To Black and was impressed, but not surprised, with what Mark Ronson had done. I knew a little bit about Amy prior to this, but not a lot. I'm not that interested in the lives of musicians unless they are talking about the musicality of their art. Of course, some musicians you cannot help but learn more about if they become huge and Amy's success with her second album had her everywhere.
So I watched as her body got smaller, her hair got larger, and her fame started to destroy her. As did everyone else. We read about her addiction, laughed at her Rehab song when we realised, loved her gumption and guts, worried about her father and her husband. But stayed in love and in awe of her talent.
And that's the thing...she could really fucking sing. She had a voice unlike any other modern female pop singer, except maybe Aretha. She was in the league of Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald. She could REALLY sing. That voice killed me and the more I listened to Back To Black, the more I re-listened to Frank. It was superior, maybe not as polished, but deeper, rawer, more real, more Amy. To this day it is still my preferred album. I did grow tired of Back To Black, you just heard it everywhere. My theory has always been no matter how superb something is, over saturation will kill it. Well for me, it does...and it did...sort of.
Watching the documentary, made me understand Back To Black a lot more, the poetry of those songs mirrored the life she was living at that time. And there came a point where she simply couldn't sing those songs any more, she wanted to more on from them and the subject matter. Of course the public still loved and revered that album and wouldn't let her. This was part of her undoing, and for that alone I will struggle to listen to that album. It almost seems wrong to do so. I am sure in time Amy would have overcome those thoughts and begun to love those songs again, but the thing is we will never find that out.
My favourite memory of Amy was The Grammys at the height of all of this. Amy was clean, sober, but couldn't get a Visa to attend the ceremony. She performed live from London, it was a great performance. I remember her childlike excitement and Amy-like honesty when she spoke. It broke my heart she wasn't there to perform, meet her idols (she was introduced by Tony Bennett and Natalie Cole), or receive her awards. I felt those around had let her down. Yes, she obviously had issues, many do, but who was looking after this headstrong, but fragile young girl?
It was at that precise moment in the Film Documentary, Amy, that I broke down. I was surprised I had held it together for so long. But it showed additional footage and you could see the awe of her presenters and the realisation she had missed the boat (or plane) in getting to meet them. Her eyes were so wide in surprise and her voice childlike, saying, "Look Daddy, it's Tony Bennett." I just lost it, not doing so well keeping it together writing this now to be honest.
Amy, is directed by Asif Kapadia. Asif directed Senna, another superb documentary and as soon as I realised he was behind this I knew she was in safe, considered hands.
The thing about documentaries today is all the raw footage to be used, everything is documented regardless and Amy being a star at this time presented so much for him to work with. It was seamless in look and story - as was Senna - but you knew it was cleverly crafted to appear so. The film delves more into her pre Back To Black days, and there was much I didn't now or only minorly suspected. Her lifetime friends, and early management and working partners were interviewed throughout the film as voiceovers and it was heartbreakingly effective. These were the people behind the scenes trying desperately to save her. But the gravy train was working hard and they had much to get in their truly altruistic ways.
To see her life and it highs and lows presented in roughly two hours was a rough watch, even when it was lovely and beautiful you were thinking, well this could have been... And when things were rough, they seemed concentrated and moreso up on the big screen. But harsh as her reality was, there was much empathy for the girl. My friend J said she had the talent of an old soul but the emotion of someone much younger than she actually was, and she couldn't reconcile the two. This is true, add in addiction and some enablers and it kind of writes itself.
Of course we all know how this story ends, but it is rough to watch. I remember when I heard about her death, I was so upset but not at all surprised. It seemed inevitable, to me, and to anyone I talked to. And that is what hurts the most about it all, if the world knew, why didn't those around her know. Well, some did, the friends and her bodyguard seemed to be the only ones trying but she had so many more not trying, the walls were too high.
It's not the first time this has happened, so many have had similar experiences before her, and I suspect many more to come. This continues to make me sad.
And whilst I paint a depressing portrait, I assure you this film is worth watching. Because you get to see the joy when she is enjoying her music, her writing, her singing. That alone is worth the price of admission.
My favourite bit in the film is when she is recording with Tony Bennett, for his duets album. She is beside herself with joy, nerves, and everything in between, you can tell in her eyes, her body language, and she says it too! Tony is just lovely, he knows how she is feeling. She is singing well but asking the recording to stop. She sounds great, but not great enough in her mind. To a lay person, you think she is being precious. Tony says it all when he says something like it's ok, I understand, you want to get it just right, I have all day. She starts to relax and then nails it. It's spine tingling, she knows it, Tony knows it, the camera cuts to this wry smile of delight that Tony gives her. They finish the song and embrace. I wept for all that could have come and all that we missed. I wasn't alone in my tears. 

If you were a fan or even if you were not, this is a great film, an important film, and one very much worth watching.

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