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by Peter Sobczynski

"Stronger Than Me"
5 stars

"Amy," the highly anticipated documentary about the tumultuous life and untimely death of singer Amy Winehouse, begins with a scene that is simultaneously the most electrifying and the most heartbreaking thing I have seen on a movie screen so far this year. In it, a 14-year-old Winehouse is hanging out with a couple of friends and screwing around in front of a camcorder before launching into an offhand but absolutely stunning rendition of "Happy Birthday." The moment is electrifying because Winehouse so effortlessly commands the song with a voice and presence that utterly belies her age and experience--if someone tried to put a scene like this in a fictional film, it almost certainly wouldn't work because no one would believe it. It is also heartbreaking because, unlike the girl in on that video, everyone sitting down to watch "Amy" knows exactly how this particular story turns out--a roller coaster of fame, fortune, drugs, booze, bad relationships, the relentless hounding of the press and the recording of one of the great albums of our time that ended abruptly with here untimely but not entirely surprising death at the obscenely early age of 27 in 2011.

With such a heady mix of ingredients, it was perhaps inevitable that someone would eventually make a documentary about Winehouse but anyone expecting a lurid "Behind the Music"-style expose is advised to look elsewhere is advised to look elsewhere. Utilizing dozens of interviews with friends, family and associates and countless hours of archival footage ranging from home movies that have never been seen in public to crack-ups seen and derided throughout the world, director Asif Kapadia (who previously directed the acclaimed racing documentary "Senna") has created a stunning one-of-a-kind work that shows how that kid singing "Happy Birthday" became one of the most talented and talked-about musical talents in the world and how she fell victim not only to the usual perils of stardom but also to people, including her good-for-nothing husband, the ravenous press and even her own father, who thought nothing of continuing to exploit her and her miseries for financial gain instead of getting her the help that she so desperately needed. More importantly, it takes a person who was, at the end of her life, at least as famous for being a tabloid fixture as anything else, and reminds us that behind all the scandals was an immensely talented woman who deserved better.

We see her in her early years as a precocious child of divorce who yearns to one day be able to sing like the jazz performers that she idolized. After scoring at an audition, she moves out of her mother's house at a young age into her own place while recording her first album, "Frank," and beginning to struggle with the demons that would plague her throughout her life--drugs, bulimia and a toxic relationship with future husband Blake Fielder-Civil, the one who would allegedly turn her on to heroin. Although fraught with difficulties (we see her grumbling at length about her producer), "Frank" is a big enough hit to make her a hot commodity and she soon became a fixture in the tabloids. Eventually, things got far enough out of control to suggest that she needed to go into rehab but, the film alleges, her own father insisted that she didn't have that bad of a problem.

That move alone ensures her father in the annals of rock and roll bad parenting alongside Murray Wilson and Marvin Gaye Sr. but it also inspired the instant classic song "Rehab," which was the big hit off of her second album, the 2007 masterpiece "Back in Black." That such a confident-sounding work could come from someone so young continues to astonish to this day, no matter how many times one has listened to it. What may not have been quite as obvious at the time was just how nakedly personal it was but by utilizing judiciously selected bits from the songs, we are able to see just how they managed to comment on what was going on in an increasingly turbulent life that would explode once the album became one of the biggest critical and commercial success of our time and she became one of the most famous women on the planet.

From this point, the story becomes depressingly familiar as she falls victim to the usual problems, including substance abuse, shaky attempts at rehab and hangers-on who are more concerned with getting her to the next high-paying gig than in letting her have a much-deserved rest. To make matters worse, the rise in celebrity culture gave her turmoil a high-tech twist that allowed her turmoil to play out on a ghastly global scale as the media and civilians alike engaged in what was essentially a massive version of cyber-bullying. In this regard, there are two scenes that especially stand out for the horrors that they reveal. In one, a newly-sober Winehouse is attempting to have a few days rest on the beach when her father arrives with a camera crew in tow that is following him around for a reality show focusing on him and his daughter, whether she likes it or not. In the second, a decidedly unwell Winehouse is trucked off to Siberia to do a concert and when she stumbles onstage and refuses to sing, the once-adoring audience turns on her and the scene, captured on thousands of cell phones and uploaded to the Internet instantly, make her a laughingstock as everyone from the press to Jay Leno take a woman who is obviously hurting and make fun of her for the sake of a few giggles.

On the one hand, "Amy" is an enraging experience because while some rock star tragedies almost seem as if they were meant to happen, that was not the case here and to see it all go to waste can be depressing--who knows what she might have gone on to achieve if she had lived, cleaned herself up for good and continued to develop her extraordinary talents. (An album of leftover scraps was released after her death and even they had more power behind them than the polished final products of most of the current inhabitants of the Top 40.) On the other, the film also does a beautiful job of reminding us that underneath all the tabloid trash and catty comments was a person who was smart, funny, sensitive and blessed with one of the purest voices in pop music history. Whether you are a hardcore devotee or someone who knows of her only as a punchline, "Amy" is that rare rockumentary that is just as fascinating, entertaining and memorable as its subject.

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originally posted: 07/10/15 06:17:56
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Cannes Film Festival For more in the 2015 Cannes Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Savannah Film Festival For more in the 2015 Savannah Film Festival series, click here.

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  03-Jul-2015 (R)

  03-Jul-2015 (15)

  03-Jul-2015 (MA)

Directed by
  Asif Kapadia

Written by

  Amy Winehouse

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