The women at the top of the music industry right now are blazing pillars of ladies in control. They rise above every bad breakup, controversy, or career hiccup, looking fabulous and celebrating their ability to overcome any obstacle. Their relationships with men don’t throw these women off balance for long. Into this environment lands Amy , the documentary about Amy Winehouse.
In a time of Sasha Fierce and female empowerment anthems like “Irreplaceable” and “Confident,” where women boldly assert their leadership, power, and autonomy, Amy is uncomfortable to watch. Winehouse was tough, direct, and naturally bold. She wrote her own music because she couldn’t sing about anything she hadn’t lived. When asked if the industry had tried to change her, she answered there was too much originality to put in something different. She gave Questlove homework to expand his jazz education. She brought back a classic look and sound that resonated as soulfully authentic. Amy shows how much Winehouse had an “I woke up like this” kind of effortless genius that poured out of her musically. She was also incredibly funny and had no problem blowing off lame reporters. “She was one of the truest jazz singers I ever heard. To me she should be treated like Ella Fitzgerald or Billy Holiday. She had the complete gift. If she’d lived I would have said “Slow down, you are too important, ” says Tony Bennet in the film. America really met Amy with “Rehab”, when the trainwreck was already in motion, but the film reveals the tremendous depth, power, and talent she had before all that. Winehouse seemed built to enjoy a significant place in music history for decades to come.
The second half of the film has an element of horror to it. The audience watches this once-in-a-generation powerhouse being swallowed up not only by her struggle with drugs, bulimia and depression but by dangerous people feeding on her gaping childhood wounds. With all of our current female superstars beacons of women’s empowerment, Amy is a powerful reminder that the qualities that make someone great are also sometimes the reasons they may need extra protection. As Tony Bennett says : “A jazz singer doesn’t like 50,000 people watching her.” She spoke frequently about the need to be left alone to create. Amy was also delicate, fragile, and deeply sensitive. As the director said in his Oscar’s acceptance speech “she needed looking after.”
It’s easy to want Winehouse to overcome her dangerous relationships with men, to proclaim she didn’t need her father’s love or approval ever again, that she was better off without her deadbeat guy, that she loved her body exactly that way it was, and that she would join the ranks of the fully empowered female entertainer. What’s bold about this film is revealing her searing vulnerability. Amy deftly lays out the profound trouble of becoming world famous with “Rehab”. Right before her career hit a fever pitch, her father was back in her life and she was teetering into the beginnings of an annihilating drug addiction. Everyone around her was trying to get her into treatment. She still had a lack of contractual commitments to take the time to get clean. She said “I’ll ask my dad and I’ll go if he thinks I need it.” And he famously answered “No, you’re fine.” She didn’t become a star; Winehouse became a brand. The boozy, tattooed bad girl who thumbed her nose at healthy, sustainable living became AMY Winehouse. The brilliant jazz singer was gone. That one moment in time where she was expressing herself musically became her cement boots. Performing “Rehab” while high on crack was expected, funny, and novel. She would be passed out cold and wake up on a private plane flying her to another gig. Her terrified best friends were told that people maintain successful lifetime careers nursing a drug addiction. She was like a prize racehorse they were going to ride until she was completely spent. Falling completely apart in public was treated almost as performance art. The media attacked her weakness and saw her inability to handle fame as humorous and shameful. Halloween costumes of Amy even came out after she died.
And there was her heroin addicted husband who had no good reason to see his very wealthy wife get clean. There’s a scene where she’s trying rehab and he is taunting her with a sinister :“Sing your song. Look where you are. You’re going to have to change you’re lyrics.” Amy responds quietly “I don’t mind it here.” But, whatever he did, she wanted to keep up. She said to a confidante “This love is killing me.” Going to actual rehab was viewed by the people around her as failure. Amy’s rebellion may have looked like self-sabotage but she was trying to save her life using the tools she had at the time. She said to her bodyguard that if she could give back her talent for one day to walk down the street and not being hassled she would. Shortly after, Amy died of alcohol poisoning.
“Who sings the right way? The real jazz singing. When I heard Amy Winehouse I immediately thought “this one has it,” says Tony Bennett. The film closes with a haunting feeling of the classic songs she would have written or the once-in-a-lifetime experience it would have been to watch a mature, sober Winehouse perform if she would have lived. With someone with that level of genius in her early twenties, the loss of her is immeasurable in the music world. Rather than a rally cry for women to be impenetrably strong in the face of whatever life throws at them, Amy is a call for acknowledgement that it’s also ok to need to be protected sometimes from one’s own vulnerabilities. The film sheds light on the human need to be cared for when it’s impossible to get there on your own. What if Amy didn’t need to be so strong, so super empowered, so self-sufficient, so in control, so able to overcome her every demon by herself to survive? What if her rebellious bad girl persona wasn’t mistaken for “badass female toughness”? What if someone she deeply trusted made the decision to really step in and protect her until she found her own strength? The delicate, heart-breaking tenderness of Winehouse did need to be acknowledged and protected at all costs. Instead, her father brought camera crews into her private sanctum. I can’t listen to “Rehab” anymore without getting choked up. A world without “Rehab” still would have been a fine world. But, a world without Amy Winehouse is less bright and beautiful.