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Film Review


Drug addicts in working and middle class America, largely hidden from sight, are still loved by their families and friends but who are ashamed of them. The addicts we know are generally the ones we see on the street, obvious to all as they panhandle or act out. But there appears to be a substantial population of addicts with good, functioning families, and when those addicts overdose and die, its effect on the families and friends is much like a suicide. For many families it is a hurt that never heals. Until recently, few would ever reveal the cause of death, especially in an obituary. In 2013, 44,000 people died of drug overdoses, 50 percent of those from heroin. The death rate from heroin has quadrupled in the past 12 years. Four times as many men die as women. The greatest increase has been in the Midwest, rather than as might be expected, close to our southern border. The increase in heroin deaths has been caused by the easy availability and increasing strength of heroin sold on the streets. Military veterans, who were often given unreasonably large does of painkillers, often end up on heroin. Treatment is at best, partially effective, with huge relapse rates. Scientists have demonstrated that heroin rewires the brain and breaking the habit is extraordinarily difficult. Treatment may take years, with many setbacks. And it is expensive. Sunday's NY Times ran a much- discussed article about the families of addicts going public about the cause of drug deaths of their loved ones. Those families feel that it reflects a new honesty about addiction: much more a disease than a moral failing. By noting the cause of their deaths it may help someone else. Most reading this review, myself included, either have a member of their extended family addicted or knows such a family.

In 2011, Amy Winehouse, the great British jazz singer, died of a drug overdose at the age of 27. She joined the ranks of an elite club, whose members include Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix, all of whom died of overdoses at the age of 27. As anyone who has ever heard Winehouse knows, her voice was powerful, even when young, and she was widely compared with Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Many hearing her sing without knowing who she was, would assume she was black. But she was a tiny Jewish girl from a middle class North London family, whose parents divorced when she was young. A British filmmaker, Asif Karpadia, has uncovered a huge amount of footage and produced a powerful film. Karpadia only has a few films to his credit, including Senna (2010), an award winning documentary about the death of a famous Brazilian Formula One driver. But his Amy takes an unusual tack from most documentaries in the use of archival footage and home movies to portray her life without any on screen interviews. Instead he interviewed many people who knew Winehouse and uses these as voiceover narrations on older footage. This is very effective as we watch fascinating clips with insightful commentaries. Many of the narrations are by her first manager and her two best friends, with numerous others including her second manager and music industry figures. Early home movies show a young girl with an extraordinary voice, who as she grows up, has a unfillable need for love and discipline. Her mother, by her own admission, was very passive. Winehouse tells her mother that she is binge eating then vomiting as a way to diet. Her mother say she felt it was only a phase, but in fact she was bulimic for most of her adult life. Her first manager seemed particularly competent and caring of her, two traits that her second manager seemed to lack, judging from the film. Winehouse was always undisciplined and headstrong, and repeatedly asked her mother for that discipline. Mitch, her father, distant as she was growing up, became very involved with her albums and seemed to be primarily interested in furthering her career. He exploited her, especially at a time when she was particularly fragile and vulnerable. An example is a trip she made to St. Lucia to seek quiet and help deal with her problems. Her father ends up bringing a reality tv crew over to record her and ignores her addiction. But by far the most malign character is her feckless boy friend, Blake Fielder-Civil, who introduced her to hard drugs and underground clubs. He was a vampire who fed off her while helping to destroy her. Yet she loved him desperately and married him, surely part of her unquenchable thirst for love. Needless to say, both men, who initially cooperated with the filmmaker, said the film lied and distorted their roles.

Amy Winehouse's life was tragic. Even if you didn't know how she died before watching the film, you see her trajectory crossing the sky in flames, finally crashing. Her last few years were a train wreck. Like most wrecks it is fascinating yet enormously sad and disturbing. Not only was she a great singer, but she wrote many of her own songs. Often the lyrics came straight from her life, such as Rehab, No No No, in which she repeats her father's opinion that she doesn't need rehab. Karpadia shows us some strong performances, often with the lyrics in subtitles. As she becomes well known, paparazzi hound her constantly. You really have to see these scenes to believe it. And as her addiction problems become public, comedians such as Jay Leno use her as an easy but cruel target. Toward the end, there is a very touching recording session with Tony Bennett, who deals kindly with her first bad takes and coaches her toward a lovely duet. If only a few more of her entourage and associates had been so caring.

So why see what sounds like a downer film? Because it is a brilliant, fascinating look at a sad (in every way) soul who had so much talent. Had she lived and come back from drugs, she would have been one of the all time great female vocalists. Amy is profoundly moving and a film that I was glad to have seen. Screening at the Embarcadero, the Kabuki, the Sequoia (Mill Valley) the Shattuck (Berkeley), and in a number of suburban Bay Area theaters. Running time: 128 minutes.

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