Amy Winehouse has been a part of my life since 2007, a time during which most of my music taste consisted of pop artists I'd cringe to admit I still like today. I was first introduced to her not through a dramatic tabloid story but through an iTunes recommendation. The most sophisticated artists I listened to at the time were people like, er, KT Tunstall and Pete Yorn, and I suppose the then-decently young music-purchasing site figured she was somewhat akin to their Starbucks-enhancing aesthetics.
I was home, sick with the flu, the day I heard “Rehab” and “You Know I’m No Good” for the first time. I didn't know about her drug-addled reality, her personal struggles, and the way the public ridiculed her for looking haggard when she, was in fact, dying. All I knew was that her voice could beckon goosebumps out of hiding with a single note, making the world seem a great deal more noiry and romantically melancholy with her strolling through the shadows.
It only took a couple of weeks for me to discover what she was really best known for, which was, undeservedly, her public image. While shopping with family, I remember flipping through a seedy magazine that felt the need to use a candid image of her holding a tiny tot and emblazoning an audience poll atop it, asking readers if they would allow for her to babysit their child under any sort of circumstance. I believe it was a staggering 98 percent that said no. It was then that I realized that the public liked making fun of her more than they liked listening to her music, and as a ten-year-old, it bothered me.
So when her unsurprising death arrived in 2011, her age the popular 27 (Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain died at the same age), I was disheartened by the idolatrous coverage. To go from humiliating Winehouse at every moment for their own enjoyment to kissing her ass felt dark. Fame is a strange phenomenon, but Winehouse’s Back to Black, a seminal album of the 2000s and a seminal blue-eyed soul masterwork, will outlive the controversy that continuously surrounded her during her lifetime.
The long-desired Amy, from 2015, is a gutting documentary about the singer’s life. It cares about Winehouse as a human, not a public figure, and to see her descend from a bubbly, talented young woman to a drug-destroyed, underweight has-been is all the more crushing because the film is viscerally potent enough for us to come to think of her as an old friend.
It wisely stays away from distracting interviews with those close to the woman, preferring to visually consist of home-video footage and paparazzi presented close-ups, backed up with narration from her friends and family and even Winehouse herself. Winehouse’s family currently insists that the film is misleading — but after discovering that they blatantly ignored her eating disorder (which she had for most of her life) and that their attempts to provide her with proper drug counseling were half-assed, their input hardly matters. Because Amy comprises unedited footage and narration used to tell a story, not enforce bias, it makes for one of the most truthful, and most harrowing, documentaries of the 2010s. Asif Kapadia (Senna) has made one of the best films of the year.
But perhaps what most will take away from Amy is not its technical and emotional superiority but the way it reminds us just how much of a tragedy Winehouse’s death is. Her voice and her lyrics had the ability to shake you up. Had the paparazzi taken a moment to leave her alone, and had she never met Blake Fielder-Civil, she could have solidified her name as a modern soul singer with a catalogue lasting generations. But as the greatest of talents have proven for decades, an early death does not stop influence: we don’t still turn to Janis Joplin for nothing. A-