It’s difficult not to compare this Academy award-nominated documentary about singer Amy Winehouse with Montage of Heck, the documentary on Kurt Cobain. Both tell the stories of young popular artists who were undone by drug abuse and depression. Both individuals suffered childhood ruptures and significant medical problems (Winehouse suffered from bulimia while Cobain had serious stomach issues). Both killed themselves, Cobain actively, Winehouse as close as you can without actually pulling the trigger.
The comparisons, however, end there. Cobain’s raw talent was nowhere near that of Winehouse. Winehouse’s voice was so powerful, nuanced and unique, it was staggering, and as evidenced by the documentary, she was a beautiful lyricist as well (thankfully, as she sings, we get to see her lyrics in print). Winehouse also comes off as extremely sympathetic, a sweet and vulnerable girl too fragile for this world (pardon the cliché), someone desperately looking for unconditional and protective love in the hard environs of celebrity. Conversely, Cobain was angry, spit at his success and pretty much made drug addiction a career goal, a decision very difficult to pigeonhole into tragedy.
Director Asif Kapadia uses the ample footage of Winehouse to guide us through her rise and fall (the advent of camera phone video gives us the paradox of Winehouse plagued by paparazzi but constantly videotaped even in private), and while he maintains a veneer of dispassion, he ties her self-destruction in part to a passive mother, an absent and then craven father (it is almost unbearably painful to watch him arrive in St. Lucia as she convalesces from an overdose with a camera-crew for his own reality TV show), an opportunistic boyfriend (if you have even an atom of chivalry in your bones, the moment you meet the creepy, clingy Blake Fielder is the moment you want to beat him senseless) and the cruelties of the press. Indeed, Kapadia is so skillful in communicating his thesis that my own bullshit meter senses oversimplification, and in pressing his case, he flirts with casting Winehouse as victim, when, in fact, she was a willing driver of the ills that befell her (she died of alcohol intoxication at 5 times the legal driving limit). Still, the film as portrait of an artist remains vibrant even if the thesis is hokum. Winehouse’s unfairly or accurately maligned father may have said it best, “Half of me wants to say don’t go see it. But then the other part of me is saying maybe go see the videos, put your headphones in and listen to Amy’s music while they’re watching the videos. It’s the narrative that’s the problem.”