In David Lynch’s seminal classic Blue Velvet (which thematically shares with Amy a tortured dark-haired chanteuse manipulated by her own internal demons as well as the vile men in her life), the line, “And now it’s dark…” is used as a secret password into a nightmarish world lurking underneath white picket fences. Later in Mulholland Drive, Lynch meditated more deeply on the tortured female soul, the flickering white lights after a failed actress’ suicide eerily like the flashes of the paparazzi’s cameras. Asif Kapadia briefly muses on the cameras that blinded Amy Winehouse’s soul as well, but his humanist documentary is so much more than just a portrayal of the archetypal tortured artist. Amy was a tortured soul long before the celebrity-obsessed cameras devoured what little was left of her.
Watching her meteoric rise and subsequent crash and burn play out in the media as it happened, I had this notion of Amy Winehouse as some meta-dramatist (with a killer voice, sassy attitude and old-school jazzy vibe) who was hell-bent on living the stereotypical hard-drinking lifestyle of a musician. I baked in my head a stale soufflé of her as someone who wanted to drink because she thought it brought out the best in her art, because she thought that’s the way a real jazz musician had to behave, and that harder drugs were just a doorway to another level. I couldn’t have been more wrong about poor Amy, who in her own words and rare archival footage, makes it clear she was most brilliant when she was sober and wrestling her demons through music, and that all the drinking and drugs were self-medication for when she couldn’t find her voice, not necessarily her literal voice, but her hard-fought catharsis in pouring out her soul through songs that filled the voids that had existed in her life since childhood (which was not so much Grand Guignol, but ordinarily sad in its universal familial strife). I had no idea her lyrics (always noted for their cunning wordplay that lent itself so beautifully to her signature annunciation, lilt, rises and attitude) were so literally literal. They often deceived a listener into thinking they were metaphors, but they weren’t. She was not one to mince words. Her albums were her autobiographies. And they painted a tragic tale. Continue reading