When I first heard Amy Winehouse’s breakout hit, “Rehab,” I was not impressed. I’m not fond of the 1950s sound that was being emulated, and the basic defiant lyrics were sending a simple message that seemed pretty unhealthy to me. Although I never judge a music artist by one track, I didn’t rush right out to hear the other songs on Winehouse’s “Back to Black” album, even though so many people whose musical taste I respected were completely in love with it.
It was around six months later that I was riding in my niece’s car, and she started playing Winehouse’s first album, “Frank.” From the first track – “Stronger than Me” – I was hooked. Every song resonated with me, especially the lyrics. And because I am a tremendous jazz fan, I was excited by Winehouse’s interpretations of jazz standards, especially on the deluxe edition of “Frank.” Her love and respect for jazz immediately took her to the top of my list of current favorite female vocalists – a space she shared with Lizz Wright.
But even though Winehouse was one of my favorite musical artists, I foolishly took her voice for granted until my mother heard a Winehouse song in my car and asked, “Who is that? She can really sing.” My mother does not hand out such compliments casually, and she’s from the old school, when people really did sing. As I answered her I thought, “She’s right. Amy really can sing.” It may seem absurd, but her incredible voice was not even the first thing that registered with me when hearing her music. It was the totality of the lyrics, music and voice. I also loved that she was a musician – even writing an unexpected love song to her guitar called “Cherry.” And she was all about the band, passionately railing against the use of “fake” instruments in her music.
Thanks to the media, everyone knew Winehouse was a troubled artist, but that often comes with the territory for the great ones, and I hoped she would somehow overcome her demons, outpace her self-destructive nature. Sadly, she did not, and the road to her untimely demise plays out logically, albeit senselessly, in the documentary “Amy,” released last weekend.
The best thing about the documentary for me was hearing her vocals on so many unreleased tracks. I was blown away by her cover of “Moon River” from when she sang with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra in London as a teenager. Many superlatives have been used to describe her singing style, but even though her poignancy comes across in her studio releases, hearing her on the outtakes and in live performances in the film was deeply moving. Director Asif Kapadia displayed the lyrics for many of the songs as she sang, which I thought was an effective way to ensure the audience was conscious of her brilliant lyrics especially since her delivery would never be described as crisp.
Kapadia was blessed with a lot of footage and commentary from all the major players in Winehouse’s life, including her family and closest friends. Watching this film, I was able to appreciate her love of her craft and her work ethic when she was allowed the time and space to create. I saw the obsessive love she felt for her husband and the toxic concoction of their relationship unfold to a nearly lethal end. I learned how desperate she was for boundaries in her youth as well as her father’s love and acceptance. I was impressed with how self-aware and endearing she was with her real friends, even when she screwed up, and with her genuine respect and admiration for her idols like Tony Bennett. I was appalled but not surprised by the media’s efforts to devour her. And I was amazed that this beautiful, talented woman was so determined to evade her suffering with even more suffering, so much so that her heart finally just stopped.
I made it through most of the documentary in a mode of clear-eyed consumption, but the final 20 minutes, particularly the footage of her when she won the Grammy for album of the year, kicked off the water works. It was wonderful to see her happy in that moment, proud to be hearing her name called by Tony Bennett, and then it was crushing to hear her best friend say that Winehouse swept her backstage to tell her how boring that indelible experience was without being high.
The film sugarcoats nothing yet flings no judgments - at least not at Winehouse. The commentary conveys the honest helplessness of those who love someone in the throes of addiction, and the images show the expressiveness of an artist trying to be herself and fend off her vulnerability while under a microscope. I often complain about the intrusion of video cameras in people’s lives, but I’m grateful the filmmakers had so much footage of Winehouse in her element during moments when she wanted the camera to be there. It captured her mischievous spirit and raw talent, and she in turn captured our hearts.
The word rehabilitate means to restore to good health or condition. Some critics are saying this movie is restoring Winehouse’s image after all the bad press she received in her last few years that seemed to make a mockery of her. But I don’t think her image needed restoring for the people who appreciated her gifts. In that regard, she was right – she did not need to go to rehab. She desperately needed rehab for her personal afflictions, but she was restored to her best self every time she was immersed in her music.