The title of the new documentary about Amy Winehouse's life is remarkably stark: Amy.
It reduces a deceased international icon to just her name, and not even her more familiar surname. Three little letters tease a tale that was captured on dozens of reels of film. It's that footage, from performances, paparazzi and more, that makes up the movie.
But Amy, in limited theaters now and expanding to more cities this weekend, is so much more than its one-word title. In a two-hour documentary, director Asif Kapadia manages to paint an engrossingly beautiful, yet horrifying, picture of an artist in her prime taken advantage of not just by the people around her, but by her fans as well. By a ravenous public eager to take and take from her.
Amy is not just the story of Amy Winehouse. It's the story of Marilyn Monroe.
Winehouse's story is as old as the memory of Norma Jeane Mortenson, a young Californian with the drive to be a star adored by fans coast to coast. As Marilyn Monroe, she became a beloved actress in movies like Some Like It Hot and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but she was also an international sex symbol pushed to give more and more of herself for her fans.
Media dogged her throughout her days, with a particular focus on her relationships with men who took advantage of her. There were her husbands: baseball player Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller. Even President John F. Kennedy had an affair with her, according to decades of rumors.
The intense media attention took its toll on her health too; Monroe became heavily dependent on drugs. Just 10 short years after her career caught fire, her candle burned out. She overdosed in 1962 at the age of 36.
The similarities between Winehouse and Monroe are clear. They were beloved not just for their work, but also for their public persona and appearance, from Monroe's bombshell image to Winehouse's beehive. Like Monroe's multiple suitors, the men in Winehouse's life took advantage of her: Winehouse's father, Mitch, and record executives repeatedly put her back in the studio or out on the road before she was healthy or ready. Mitch even brought his reality show crew to visit Amy as she tried to get clean, a saga that becomes one of the documentary's most harrowing sequences.
But ultimately, media and fan fixation were what drove both women to their untimely ends. Amy may blame Winehouse's family and managers for her overdose death, but it doesn't let the public off the hook, either. The snapping bulbs of paparazzi cameras are a constant fixture in the film, which includes late-night hosts and cultural commentators hurling harsh barbs at a struggling young woman. They're as dismissive as people once were of Monroe, calling her a "dumb blonde."
Yet in both cases, the public laughed.
One could argue Amy focuses too much on her addiction, but even that acts as a reflection of the audience. Postmortem, the focus is on Winehouse's music — a brilliant artist lost too soon. She was indeed that artist, but during her life, the public was ravenous for gritty personal details. It all comes together in Amy, which charges that we are partly culpable for her loss. We are to blame.
The starlets' stories aren't a perfect mirror. Unlike Monroe, Winehouse wasn't interested in being famous, as is stated repeatedly in Amy. She continually warded people off from making her a star, saying she didn't think she'd be good at being famous. Her interest was always the music — as can be seen in recording sessions of songs like "Back to Black." That's where her heart lay.
Yet that's what makes Winehouse the Marilyn Monroe of the 21st century rather than the 20th. The media climate is different now: Interest in being famous is only tangentially related to becoming famous. Once the public heard her, Winehouse was never going to avoid being a superstar. It was her fate.
Thanks to that media climate, death may have been her fate as well. Watching Winehouse carried out in a body bag after watching Amy for two hours, it all feels inevitable. It all feels hopelessly tragic.
The media climate is different in the 21st century: Interest in being famous is only tangentially related to becoming famous.
Monroe's legacy lives on over 50 years after her passing. She's an international cultural symbol, depicted on the big screen and the small. She won't fade from memory any time soon. One hopes Amy will help Winehouse achieve the same status — but for her music. A record like Back to Black from a visionary artist like her deserves a place in the canon of the greats.
As for her personal struggles, Amy doesn't apologize for them. It presents the person as she was: deeply talented but deeply troubled. The best lessons that can be learned are that people struggling with addiction are not jokes, and public figures are not endless fonts to be drawn from until they're tapped. Those lessons weren't learned after Monroe died, of course. But one can hope.
To respect artists like Monroe and Winehouse is to let their art thrive. To smother them in life is to spend years grieving their memory after their death.