27 is the sadly the young age that ties together so many legendary musicians we have lost, from Jimi Hendrix to Janis Joplin to Jim Morrison. In the last year, two documentaries were done about dead-at-27 musicians, HBO’s Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck and the Amy Winehouse documentary Amy. Both focus on the coming up/growing up of these two incredible talents, and sadly follow the same pattern.
Montage of Heck, while bold and creative in some ways, focuses on the darkness and disturbance of Cobain’s childhood and home life later with Courtney Love. Amy, while obviously focusing on an equally dark story (a life lost early to a drug overdose), shines a bit brighter image of the life of Amy Winehouse. It does delve into her dark moments like Montage of Heck, but you also see the charming, common English girl with a gift for singing come through. Seeing Amy riding in the back of a car with friends singing and dreaming of stardom as well as early moments singing in the club is a cool glimpse into a promising young star.
Amy does gets dark when she moves to the Camden burrough of London after her surprise debut album Frank, and gets into a relationship with her future husband Blake Fielder-Civil. Not too dissimilar to how Courtney Love exacerbated Cobain’s addiction issues, Amy and Blake are by all means poison for each other. Sadly it just gets darker and darker from there. But even through the dark period, the film still show flashes of Amy’s humor and warm spirit.
The biggest credit to Amy, which really applies to the best music docs, is it doesn’t focus on a bunch of talking heads talking about the subject but is filled to the brim with archival footage, not even cutting away for a second to show those commenting on Amy. This keeps the focus on Amy and in turn I think you get a fuller picture of the talented singer. So many pop singers are all glammed-up and made-to-look perfect and pristine; Amy’s imperfections shined through in her lyrics as well as her life. She never tried to shake her gritty look and cockney accent even as the retro-soul music she sang over painted such a pretty picture. In many ways, it’s like the beautiful, timeless soul music in the 60’s and 70’s that came out of the gritty cities of Detroit, Philly, and New York.
From a musical perspective, the documentary is also a treat, as you get to see and hear early demos and live performances of Amy’s biggest hits including “Back to Black” and “Tears Dry on Their Own” among others. This again is in-between her awful episodes addiction and bulimia, but it’s nice to still get a glimpse of her incredible gifts amidst the ugliness.
For its tremendous love and focus on its subject, vast archival footage, and musical moments, Amy is likely the best possible (and hopefully only) look at the life of Amy Winehouse we could have gotten. Now hopefully she will just live on in her timeless songs.