There’s a stereotypical trajectory of a certain kind of Jewish girl in show business, one that is roughly sketched out by the plot of Funny Girl (and the concurrent rise of its star, Barbra Streisand; although you can apply it to any number of female Jewish stars, from Sophie Tucker to Joan Rivers to Bette Midler.) In this motif, the world initially rejects her, telling her she’s too chubby or too plain or that her nose is too big. In other words, she’s too much for whatever it is the show biz honchos are looking for. The young Jewish woman responds by unleashing the gale force of her talent, forcing them (whoever they are) to sit up and take heed: this is a voice that will not be ignored.
She then has a meteoric rise to the top, which, while it may be littered with painful personal sacrifice—a divorce here, an estranged child there—and professional setbacks, ultimately ends with the heroine somewhere in a castle in Malibu or a penthouse in Manhattan, as mistress of all she surveys. She may still be stung by the early suggestions of producers who told her to change her name, straighten her hair and get a nose job. And she may never have found the lasting love of an equal who truly understands her, but at the end of the day, she’s still a living legend. Living being the operative word.
For a brief, shining moment in early 2011, it seemed that the late, great, Amy Winehouse might, however improbably, follow the same path. She was looking good, healthier than she had in years. She’d put on a little weight. Her skin was looking clear. She was back in the studio. Her long folie-à-deux with irresistible junkie scoundrel Blake Fielder-Civil (forever immortalized as “Blake Incarcerated” in her Grammy acceptance speech because he was in prison at the time for assault and obstruction of justice after a bloody brawl in a Camden Town pub) seemed finally to have ended. Instead, she was dating a solid looking young man who wore sleek Saville Row suits and had no visible track marks. Of course she wasn’t going to self-destruct—nice Jewish girls from North London never really do. She was getting her act together and the new Amy—older, wiser—would burn ever more brightly for decades to come.
Instead, she died, and it still feels unfair.
That feeling, that her death was an inevitability that somehow seemed anything but inevitable, is precisely the feeling Asif Kapadia seeks to interrogate in his new documentary Amy, which received massive buzz at Cannes in May and is now breaking box-office records in the UK. Why did Amy die? Could anyone have stopped it? Yes—and no. That’s the answer Kapadia comes to, through a vast exhibition of home video clips, concert footage, tabloid coverage, and exhaustive interviews with her friends and loved ones. Amy was willful, she was a drug addict, she was hopelessly, obsessively in love with a man who was absolutely no good for her: But where would she have been if her mother had taken her bulimia more seriously? Or if the tabloids hadn’t hounded her so incessantly? Or if her father, who saw an opportunity in his gifted daughter to grab a small slice of the success that had eluded him as an amateur musician, hadn’t famously told his daughter that she didn’t need to go to rehab because she was fine? Would things have turned out differently? Would the music have been the same?
Because the music, at the end, is what really matters. As Amy herself says in an early interview in the film: “The more people see of me, the more they’ll realize that all I’m good for is making music.” It’s the kind of faux self-deprecating statement we’re inured to from celebrities who want to seem “authentic,” but Amy meant it. Amy was authentic, and ultimately, it was the authenticity—her inability to turn herself into a packaged commodity able to compartmentalize her life in order to successfully deal with celebrity—that killed her. But it was the music (and such precious little of it!) that kept her alive, that gave her something to live for, and ultimately, what we’ll remember.
In the film’s most moving scene, Amy records a duet with Tony Bennett. She’s visibly shaking with awe as he tells her, humbly and sweetly, that she’s in a league with Ella Fitzgerald. “There are very few of us,” he says, a pronouncement as rife with warning as with praise. There may never be another. And that’s what makes Amy’s death hurt all over again.