Goodnight, My Angel, Sleep Tight
From Keith Richards to Tony Bennett, they knew the twenty-seven-year-old was in deep trouble and that “she knew that she wasn’t going to live.” Publicized and sung-about sick relationships, self-mutilation and violence, lawsuits, booed non-performances, institutionalizations, the bulimia that brother Alex maintained killed her, massive drug use giving way to binge alcoholism -- all that madness is forgotten except for a sigh in the relaxed wonder of music that is Amy Winehouse: the day She came to Dingle.
Fast and loose throughout with print capitalization, the not-quite-hour gives a good third of its length over to six entire numbers backed simply by guitar and bass, of gospel-inflected ska-jazz moving into R&B blues-soul. Each of the half-dozen is followed by a girlish curtsey to much applause from eighty-max lucky listeners in cozy Anglican Saint James Church. Interspersed with limited tourist scenery, the rest is praise from charmed fifth Other Voices Festival personnel and locals like the reverend and her taxi driver -- the fishing village accessible only by boat or automobile -- and the singer’s candid talk with show presenter John Kelly.
Irish director-editor Maurice Linnane knows how to mix things up for this episode aired on the long-running BBC arts “Arena.” The whole concluding with real delight at an unexpected tray of oysters and lemons, the interview questions are brass tacks, no gossip, on musical influences, enthusiasms, learning and plans, though the interviewee laughs on slipping in references shuddery in hindsight to men and alcohol, her accent rather thick to penetrate.
Aside from the quality of the performance, this “concert” documentary is unusual in its welcome lack of swaying raised hands and audience faces, its effective rather than perfunctory close-ups, and its leaving musical clips virtually intact instead of the usual frustrating snippets. This latter holds not only for the young Londoner’s live renditions but also for the well-chosen “illustrative” ones of idols and influences she brings up: Sarah Vaughan, a sweating Mahalia Jackson sporting a thumb swollen with bandages, Carleen Anderson, Soweto Kinch, Thelonious Monk, girl group the Shangri-Las, Ray Charles (whose remarks about believing and feeling go straight to Winehouse). And, unmentioned but obvious, Dinah Washington.
The six-hour, December 3, 2006, visit when she was still rising to international fame -- and unfortunate later infamy, as well -- is so well served in this stripped-down record that one cannot imagine that a Cannes-announced documentary (or one rumored three years ago, from a former boyfriend) could improve on showcasing her.
She all in black right up to heavy eye makeup, her “spindly legs and [Ronette-inspired bootblack-dyed beehive] mental [sic] hair,” body tattoos prominent and piercings, might have struck some locals as big-city strange, not to mention a four-letter word or two in lyrics; but the performance and person could not have failed to convince the most cynical of doubters. Twenty-two then, the woman-child is relaxed, sincere and happy, leading to wonder if, as with Sade, her true métier might not have been the small jazz-oriented clubs in which she did one single gig before being ushered into studio recording, awards, festivals and massive arenas.
In Dingle, she does not appear to be on the artist’s psychological edge from which she could not pull back to save herself. Swaying a bit, sparingly using arms and hands like a dancer, eschewing spectacle gyrations, Winehouse highlights the voice, the song and the emotion informing it. Comfortable with intimacy, audience and self, she does not feel the need for stage banter to build a bridge, and reserves for the one-on-one at Benner’s Hotel details like “Russian bankers love me, because I’m a Russian Jew,” which is why, three years after her music-industry-pattern death from a final straw of alcohol poisoning, AW:dScD has its New York première in the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Jewish Museum’s twenty-third annual New York Jewish Film Festival. Padded there by eight minutes with Israel’s First Lesson in Love, the film’s shortness makes commercial release problematic; but in one form or another it surely deserves to reach the public.