Friday, July 17, 2015

Amy (2015)

Chasing Amy
"Oh, It's a Bit Upsetting at the End, Innit?"

No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
John Donne

What a "wonderful" thing "social" media is. When Amy Winehouse was reported dead on July 23, 2011 (of alcohol poisoning), I took to Facebook to mourn and express regrets. I was a fan (and still am). Her album "Back to Black" impressed. Winehouse had a unique voice and style, especially given what was passing for "pop" during her career. She transcended the genre, taking more of a jazz approach, and her songs (which she wrote or co-wrote) were raw and pointed. Her words were simple, but framed in devastating ways. She said things nobody dared say and the voice was big and bold and...a rarity these days unenhanced.  Like the comment William Wyler made to Billy Wilder at Ernst Lubitsch's funeral ("Well, no more Lubitsch." "Worse, no more Lubitsch movies..."), I was sorry not only for the life ended, but for the work that would go on unproduced and unheard, of the potential lost. For that, the loss of Winehouse was a double tragedy.

The responses I got from that post were sharp, and dare I say...harsh. There was a lot of "I don't know Amy Winehouse's stuff, but she was an idiot for the way she died, and I don't want to listen to somebody who would throw their life away like that." I composed a cursory reply to try to say that, yeah, sure, she was an addict and a booze-head, but she was an enormously talented one, and got more replies along the lines of "why would I waste my time...?" "She was just a punchline..."

Can't argue with that. Why would you listen to Hendrix or Holliday, either, or read Fitzgerald or Hemingway? Why waste your time on the works of people so flawed? In which case, yes. But it's your loss. Why waste my time arguing the point?

They probably won't go see Amy, either, the documentary about Winehouse's short and Icarusian career. Even more the loss. Because director Asif Kapadia has pulled off something of a miracle. Without stentorian narration, with very few graphic tricks—participants are identified, lyrics put on-screen—the entire story of Winehouse's rise and fall is presented by nothing except found footage and interviews. It shows you just how omnipresent cell-phone footage and self-coverage has become that so much of the story can be told just using that. And it starts with a clip borrowed from a friend's 14th birthday party, where Winehouse is just being a kid, but a kid with a nervy showmanship and the chops to back it up.
Yeah. Before Winehouse became self-destructive before the klieg lights of a cyclopean media in full feeding frenzy and "a punch-line" for comedians looking for the easy laugh, she was just a kid. And talented. So talented that it was recognized very quickly. And then the money machine started to roll, and publicity mill started to churn. Struggling to "make it" in her teens, she was fine. At 20, with the release of her first album "Frank" she started to become well-known, and started to indulge too much, and was influenced by two very important men (but only to her): her father, Mitch, who left her mother when Winehouse was 9, and visited weekends, and started managing her business affairs—with his expertise as a window installer and taxi driver—and Blake Fielder-Civil, her on-again/off-again boyfriend and husband, who was the inspiration of her album "Back to Black." The less said about him the better, but it is well-documented in the film.

And that's the thing. Despite protests that the editorial thrust of the documentary is skewed (and it can be, very, very easily), the actions and words are historically recorded and cannot be denied. You record the image. You live with the image. You suffer the consequences. When Fielder-Civil is seen, the day of his marriage to Winehouse in a bar, drunk as a skunk (her in the background, apart from his displays) crowing to the camera that "Amy's paying for it!" one can only agree, in the darkest interpretation of the words.

There are moments revelatory and heart-breaking: the early electric performances in front of small crowds; the way the usually very vocal Winehouse "checks out" with her eyes as an interviewer vapidly talks about comparisons with other artists that have nothing to do with Winehouse's work and style, the studio footage with Winehouse "together" and extraordinarily professional in the studio; the extraordinarily scary footage of Winehouse making her way through the electrical storms of papparazzi buzzards, and the image of her looking fearfully out an apartment window; Jay Leno glad-handing her at a performance on the "Tonight Show," then half an hour later cracking a cruel joke about her addictions; on the night of her Grammy wins, gaping child-like at presenter Tony Bennett (who has the last, wise words of the movie) as if she were seeing God—"Dad! Look! It's Tony Bennett!"; the gentlemanly, kind way he treats her during a recording of a duet when she crumbles on the first take because she's not doing it good enough in her estimation; the heart-breaking footage of her non-concert in Belgrade, where she doesn't look drunk at all, but scared to death (putting me in mind of a concert of Frank Sinatra's I attended that had moments of wreckage where I assumed he was drunk, but in reality, he was old and had Alzheimer's—Shirley Maclaine closed her opening act by saying "When you see him, be kind").

Be kind. Those words haunt me. We don't live in a kind society. We see success and talent and rather than celebrate it, we want to tear it down...exploit it...get our jollies from it. Highlight the drugs and the drink, but not mention the bulimia or the depression because what fun is that? Where's the punchline? "Are you not entertained?" yells Maximus in The Gladiator, exorting the crowd of the blood-sport and damning them at the same time.

Winehouse's albums are extraordinary things to listen to, but there's one of her true stories that I can't listen to...ever again. I skip it in the playlist, and if I could see where it existed on the CD among the 1's and 0's, I would scratch it out and make it unplayable. Her best known song. Emblematic, certainly, but far too cheeky in its repercussions and history, and for all the snickering easy laughs it generated when things became desperate.

Jesus and Custer died for our sins.  

Amy Winehouse died for our entertainment.

And if I hear "Rehab" one more time, I'm gonna goddamn scream.

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