There was once a girl that nobody knew who loved to sing. She had talent. She had ambition. She was ready to conquer the world. By age 27, she was famous and dead. What led to such a tragedy? That’s the story of the documentary Amy.
Amy Winehouse was a British singer with a fondness for jazz music. The first glimpses we see of her barely leave an impression. She goofs around in the backseat of a car. She’s flirtatious and ordinary. Then, she sings. Suddenly we get what the fuss was about. As a friend later observes, her voice sounds like a 60-year-old jazz singer bursting from a 20-year-old body.
The U.K. caught on fast. Her first album, Frank, was a smashing success. Her follow up, Back to Black, caught the rest of the world’s attention. Amy won five Grammies for Black including album of the year. But she would never make another record.
An Intimate Portrait
Amy is one of the most intimate portraits of a celebrity put to film. We see everything: home movies, candid photographs, even personal voicemails. Director Asif Kapadia lingers on the details, letting the nuances soak in. The film is deeply personal, but not in a sensationalist Behind the Music fashion. We feel like the close friend Amy never knew she had – observing from a distance, increasingly concerned.
Kapadia has a rare approach to documentary filmmaking. We don’t see Amy’s friends and family interviewed, we hear them. Their voices, soft-spoken and natural, provide the only narration. The result feels uniquely unforced. No one’s telling us what to think or how to feel. We hear reflections, see the visuals, and draw our own conclusions.
If you’ve never heard of Amy Winehouse, you’re in good company. Kapadia seems to have built the film for that exact audience. We follow Amy from the very beginning to the very end. When she performs, her lyrics pop up on screen so we can appreciate the words. And appreciate, we do. Amy wrote her own songs. Her rhymes are clever and insightful.
Amy had problems long before she was famous. Her demons began in childhood. Amy’s father spent the first nine years of her life carrying on an affair behind the scenes. Her parents eventually divorced, leaving a hole in Amy’s heart that she filled with rebellion and addiction. She began practicing bulimia at a young age, bragging to her Mom that she’d discovered a new diet. Her mom didn’t take the warning signs seriously. Neither did her friends.
Later in life, Amy turned to alcohol when things got tough. Then, she found heroin. Periods of soberness came and went, but even in her brightest moments Amy craved escape. After winning five Grammies, she told her friends, “This would be so much better with drugs.” Her friends tried to intervene. They practiced tough love. But by then, Amy was lost in the celebrity machine.
The Celebrity Machine
Amy had no desire to be famous, but her talent made it inevitable. After the release of her second album, paparazzi followed her everywhere. Flashbulbs blinded even the dullest trips outside the home. There was also a relentless demand for her time. Money was flowing. The world was hungry.
When was there time to get well?
What she needed was someone to step in and bring it all to a screeching halt. She needed the world to go away for as long as it took to get better. But the paparazzi wouldn’t allow it. Even her manager wouldn’t allow it. Everyone wanted a piece of Amy Winehouse.
Amy’s most public breakdown occurred at a concert in Belgrade, Serbia. She arrived on stage an hour late, drunk. She slurred through songs and was booed by the crowd. That was her final concert.
Amy died a month later with a blood alcohol level 40 times the legal limit. Years of reckless living were too much for her body to take. Her heart gave up in the night. She died alone.
We’re All to Blame
Amy is responsible for her own choices, but there’s enough blame to go around. In a way, we’re all to blame. We created the machine that added fuel to her fire.
Our hearts are idol factories, as Calvin observed. Just like the Israelites, we grow restless with a God we can’t wrap our senses around. We want the shiny golden calf that we can see and touch. So we make idols out of everyone – movie stars, politicians, musicians, and athletes. We buy albums and t-shirts. We beg for autographs. We make celebrities larger than life. Is it any wonder they start to believe they are?
Their weaknesses eventually appear, of course. Shine a spotlight on any human being and you’ll see chinks in the armor. That’s when we tear them to shreds. The same Jay Leno who gushed over Amy when she performed on his show cracked jokes about her drunkenness years later. The media had a field day when her addictions surfaced. The public did too.
I remember hearing about the infamous concert disaster in Belgrade when I was in college. I frantically scoured the internet for a video. Not because I cared, but because I wanted a good laugh.
Christians of all people should know better, but we’re often the ones pointing the longest finger. We’re supposed to understand the level playing field we’re all on when it comes to sin. We’re supposed to be able to call ourselves “chief of sinners” like the Apostle Paul.
While everyone else is worshipping the ground celebrities walk on, Christians should be treating them like human beings. While everyone else is ridiculing celebrities for their sins, Christians should be praying for them. Romans 5:8 removes all illusions of superiority – “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Just a Girl
As Amy’s life falls deeper into chaos, the footage from the beginning looms larger. What once seemed like throwaway clips smack of lost innocence. Here was someone who had her whole life ahead of her. She could still walk into a room without light bulbs flashing and strangers asking for autographs. She could still perform on stage free of pressure and expectation. She was just a girl who wanted to sing, before the world ate her up and spit her out again.
We lost Amy, but we can still stand up against the culture that harmed her. These are people, just like us. They need God, just like us. [inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”cinemafaith” suffix=””]Let’s tear down the celebrity machine, before its greasy gears claim another beautiful life.[/inlinetweet]