Sunday, January 31, 2016

OVP: Amy (2015)

Film: Amy (2015)
Stars: Amy Winehouse
Director: Asif Kapadia
Oscar History: 1 nomination/1 win (Best Documentary Feature*)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars

I honestly didn't really know what to expect when Asif Kapadia's smash-hit documentary Amy came into theaters last year.  I am a huge fan of the late singer, owning not only both her albums but having them on constant repeat on my iPhone.  I'd arguably say that only Adele can rival her in terms of my favorite singers who started this century, and over four years after her death, it still stings to think of what might have been had drugs, alcohol, and fame not brewed her the same cocktail that took down other musical luminaries like Kurt Cobain and Janis Joplin.  I initially balked at the idea of the documentary, thinking that it might be in bad taste and of the Behind the Music variety, and I wasn't about that with a singer I treasured so much, but after grossing over $8 million domestically (a HUGE sum for a documentary that doesn't involve Michael Moore or animals) and gaining an Oscar nomination, I figured it was time to investigate the film.

I think the most startling thing about watching the movie is that so much of this footage exists, quite frankly.  It's worth noting that for a time there Winehouse was one of the most famous human beings on the planet.  Along with people like Lindsey Lohan and Britney Spears at the time (and later the likes of Justin Bieber and Amanda Bynes), Winehouse was one of several celebrities that seemed to be on a constant spiral that the media couldn't stop discussing, with millions of dollars worth of clicks and tabloids being sold about the singer's fall from grace.  So it's staggering to think that such a famous person could have so much unused or undocumented footage from her life, including scenes that feel almost as if they were created for this specific documentary.  For conspiracy theorists out there, this is a movie you should not skip.

The film, especially at first, feels like it was about to fall into the VH1 hole and we get scenes of Winehouse, young and fresh-faced and a talent the likes of which few had seen.  The movie does, in fact, occasionally feel vaguely exploitive of the young singer, and there was more than one moment where I felt squirmy in my chair as I watched the singer start to say things that felt like they were included only because they would be prophetic (particularly her early talk about how she'd never be able to handle fame, which of course turned out to be the case).  The movie does feel like it's walking a very fine line between trying to condemn the culture of celebrity that exacerbated Winehouse's problems (it doesn't help her that she's constantly being goaded by the paps to fall and sell papers-after all, who wants to read about someone who is doing better?) and cashing in on it, with frequent, voyeuristic looks at a woman that mental illness and addiction have plagued so severely.

I'd perhaps write off the film as a crass look into the young jazz singer if it wasn't put together so compellingly and with such great care.  The film makes you feel for Winehouse in the final forty minutes in a way I didn't expect.  As I mentioned above, I was a massive fan of Amy's when she was alive and afterwards, and went through a bit of a personal mourning period (I know that bashing celebrity mourning has become en vogue and I don't want to invite that as a controversy, but I'm fine with it if the person meant something to you, and my favorite celebrities impact my life on a day-to-day far more than a lot of people I actually interact with on a day-to-day, so there).  As a result, I didn't think I still had a well of sympathy and frustration about Winehouse that wasn't already tapped, but I was wrong.  Watching the singer get booed in that famous clip of her struggling at a concert or seeing the way that her weight and image were thrown apart toward the end of her life elicited anger from me and the way that we address and sensationalize mental illness when it involves a celebrity, particularly when it impacts younger women (you will end up hating George Lopez after this film if you don't already).  The goal of the film was not only to show what happens when genius and fame combine with a fragile persona, but also to celebrate Winehouse and hopefully start a conversation about how we prevent this sort of tragedy in the future.  It does that in perhaps the most compelling way it can, and while it feels occasionally exploitive, the respect for the singer is never in doubt.

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