As a bio-pic, the Amy documentary is so-so, providing just enough evidence to let us see that her family was the real thing when it came to dysfunctionality. We want more detail more coherently laid out. On the other hand, all the fine-grained detail in the world might not have explained why the singer was so vulnerable to everything that undermined and eventually destroyed her. No matter how thoroughly we riffle their pages, some psyches remain closed books. Which doesn’t mean that Amy is a bad movie. The main point of it is to show images from every stage of in the rise and fall of a stunningly powerful performer, and here it succeeds. In one clip after another we are confronted by a presence difficult to describe without falling back on the ready-to-hand notion of expressiveness. Amy Winehouse was, no question, among the most expressive singers ever. Yet the notion of expression has to be nuanced a bit before it applies to her in any adequate way.
A mouse runs up the leg of someone’s pants. The person screams in surprise and fear. That’s expressive. A driver, cut off in traffic, bellows in mindless outrage. That too is expressive. Amy Winehouse’s expressiveness is more—what? Subtle? Modulated? Sophisticated? We could add to this list of adjectives but that wouldn’t help because her singing is not merely expressive. It is detached, as strange as that may sound, and if it were not for her detachment she couldn’t have come anywhere near the power she wielded at her amazing best.
Written during the 1770s, Denis Diderot’s “The Paradox of the Actor ” takes on the commonsense idea that the best actors become the characters they play—that a performance is convincing to the degree that the emotions the actor expresses simply are those of Hamlet or Willy Loman or whichever character is being portrayed. Wrong, said Diderot, who saw that sort of identification as undisciplined and prone to bombastic excess. Good actors, he argued, detach themselves from the characters they play, the better to understand and accurately represent the emotions of these fictional personages.
I don’t say that Diderot is entirely right. I do say that he is on to something—namely, the self-awareness that guides, inflects, and deepens the expression of emotion onstage. This is a kind of detachment. And it requires a kind of intelligence, more intuitive than analytical, that all great performers have. This intelligence is what draws us to memorable acting or singing. We respond not simply to displays of feeling but to signs that the emotions on display are in some way understood by the performer and thus consciously meant. For audience and performer are not joined by floods of emotion. They are joined by shared meanings, and Amy Winehouse had the power to convey meaning of white-hot intensity.
A clip in Amy shows her talking with Tony Bennett about singing a song differently every time. This is what jazz singers do and what she did in the early stages of her career. Then she had mega pop hits and acquired a mega audience of fans who wanted not her subtleties but the product they bought into—and of course they wanted it the same every time. This could only have been devastating to the signer, a denial of all that meant anything to her—of everything worth living for.