Fallen Angel: Self-Destructing before the World  

amy-winehouse

Amy during better days
 The Short and Tragic Life of Amy Winehouse

The new documentary film on the British singer Amy Winehouse now playing at the Sunset Theater in the East Village is beautifully produced and directed by Asif Kapadia. Over the course of two hours and eight minutes we are provided a remarkable look into the life of this six time Grammy winner who rose up from the London working class and captured a world-wide audience writing and singing songs based on the vicissitudes of the high times and bizarre episodes that mark the rise and fall of her short but remarkable life.  Watching the movie I got the impression that we were witnessing the human equivalent of a shooting star that blazes across the night skies in a bright flash of light and then flames out before our eyes.

The film is thoughtfully constructed from video clips of her life; some of it is finely produced footage from her live performances in the UK and the USA, but most of the footage comes from family and friends.  Thus we see her in a wide variety of settings.  Some of the film has sound, and thus we can observe her speaking, but other footage is accompanied by voice overs of Amy speaking.  Hence we hear a lot of her story in her own words. And what we see is a young person of considerable creative talent who appears to understand little in life except making music, and cannot overcome the deep seated emotional problems caused by the lasting trauma of her father abandoning her and her mother at an early age.

This leaves her with a deep need to be loved by men, or at least win their approval, and her emotional neediness drives her into a destructive relationship with a guy who is also emotionally damaged because of a screwed up relationship with his parents.    He promises to be her rock and help Amy cope and instead he introduces her to crack cocaine and heroin.  Abuse of these drugs along with excessive alcohol consumption final did her in at the tender age of 27.  However in the meantime she managed to become an international superstar who could have become fabulously rich if she had been able to stay sober.

Although Amy’s particular experience is unique, the basic narrative is an old story: old wine in a new bottle.  In many ways her saga is so familiar she comes across at times as a cliché, depending upon who is watching it.  For those who know something of music business history and inside lore it is easy to place Amy’s self-destructiveness within a tradition of music history in the 20th century. Creative geniuses like Charlie Parker and Jimmy Hendrix self-destructed on drugs, and there is a long line of singers whose fame and fortune couldn’t rescue them from self-destruction: Billy Holiday, Judy Garland, Elvis Pressley, Janis Joplin, Michael Jackson, Phyllis Hyman, Whitney Houston, et al.  However none of them acted their destruction on stages with a million people watching.

Under Asif Karpadia’s direction we are provided glimpses of Amy’s life before she became a star, when she was a passably pretty girl who was more sensuous that beautiful; her best feature being full pouty lips –DSL’s that forced one’s mind into the gutter –and her long black hair, which she often wore in “big hair” styles resembling the popular “beehive” styles of the 1960’s.  She reminded me of one of those smart mouth delinquent working class English girls in the British movie “To Sir with Love,” starring an unusually stiff and priggish Sidney Portier.

But after all is said and done the raison d’etre for this documentary film is Amy Winehouse’s talent and importance as a musical artist.  On this issue the movie becomes an extended panegyric that degenerates into special pleading.   While there is no doubt that Ms. Winehouse had talent, it is a gross exaggeration to call her “The Queen of Soul,” while the real queen, Ms. Aretha Franklin, was alive and well – not to mention her numerous Afro-American progeny such as Whitney Houston, Alicia Keyes, Beyoncé et al who are singing their asses off in the tradition.  And Tony Bennet’s claim that she was “one of the purest jazz singer I ever heard….if she had lived she would have been on the same level with Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Holiday,” is shameless hyperbole.

Perhaps Tony Bennet’s assessment of Ms. Winehouse’s talent was influenced by the fact that she constantly cites him as her artistic “hero,” along with Sarah Vaugh, Billy Holliday, Thelonious Monk, and other Afro-American Jazz greats.  Testimony from black American artists in the film like the drummer/leader of “Da Roots,” an innovative hip hop band from Philly, revealed that she was a serious student of the Jazz tradition that was constantly recommending records for him to study.

However most of the music selected for the film – which one presumes was a representative sample of her work – was Rhythm & Blues and her band was rocking!  There were excerpts from some of her Jazz performances, the most extensive being a recording date she did with Tony Bennett, where she was scared to death and nearly walked out of the studio when she kept screwing up on take after take.  It was clear that Amy and Tony have a mutual admiration thing going; that accounts for the dreamy things they say about each other.  But reality is not so easy to conceal.

Amy Winehouse was just the latest white singer to study the black vocal style and brazenly imitate her idols.  Here too her story is an oft told tale.  It was true of Elvis Pressley, Mick Jagger, Joe cocker, Billy Joel. Janet Joplin, et al.  It was also true of white instrumentalists too.  And in each of these cases once the white performer became competent in the genre they were crowned “The King of Jazz” aka Paul Whiteman; the “king of Swing” aka Benny Goodman; the “King of Rock and Roll” aka Elvis Pressley; the “King of Hip Hop” aka M&M; the “Queen of Rap” aka Iggy Azalia.

According to this film Amy Winehouse was both “The Queen of Soul” and was on the way to rivaling the great Ella Fitzgerald and the incomparable Billy Holliday as a Jazz singer.  Yet each of these art forms are Afro-American inventions, and only black artists and audiences can decide who is boss because they set the standards of excellence.  The resulting product has captured the imagination and created devotees among musicians all over the world…since the turn of the twentieth century Afro-American musicians have been the most infventive and imitated artists on earth. It is obvious that white folks need to chill, get over themselves.

Aside for these gross exaggerations regarding the magnitude of Ms. Winehouse’ talent; this is a pretty good flick about a very troubled performer who literally decomposes before our eyes.  We watch her go from a healthy, perky, quite attractive girl, to a bulimic sack of bones who seem to be knocking on death’s door – one foot in the coffin and the other on a banana peel.

Lost in Space?
Amy_winehouse_in_pink_top_and
High off everything ….but life

Yet nobody cold reason with her; not her closet girlfriends who had been at her side since childhood, nor the Afro-American rapper/actor  Mos Def, who she evidently admired and pops up throughout the movie at various stages of her career like Banquo’s ghost, warning Amy to turn away from her self-destructive path. Finally, on a hot July day in 2011, she finally killed herself; the autopsy said she died of “alcohol poisoning.”

In the end the filmmaker managed to produce a poignant portrait of a self-destructive artist who turned her pain into song poetry and allowed the world to witness her self-immolation even as she tried to hide out in plain sight.

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Double Click on links to see Amy Perform

Live in London 2007

Amy’s last tragic Concert

CLICK TO SEE THE REAL QUEENS OF SOUL!

Aretha Franklin

https://youtu.be/fgRyh9f5cOE

Whitney Houston

https://youtu.be/E849UUqNe3g?list=RDE849UUqNe3g

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