You enjoy watching old movies or listening to Billie Holiday or Nina Simone while you cook? Me too! Immediately I feel like we have a deep, dark secret that has bonded us forever, and I’ve already begun designing the interiors of our clubhouse, searching for a tree that will support it, and debating how many pauses our secret knock should include. Will our secret handshake involve footwork, and how hard will we have to work at not making others feel excluded by our superior, special bond? This is how everyone reacts to a shared love of classic film and jazzy tunes, right?
Headphones in place, slowly and silently the singer leans into the microphone. Only she hears the music; I hear only her voice, and at that moment stirs the irregular feeling in my gut where tears get their running start. My tummy tightens, my breathing shortens, and I smile in one final attempt to stop the crying from bursting through its barrier. I’ve come to know my body well enough to recognize this particular smile; one that’s practically a laugh is also the one that announces the arrival of tears. As the singer moves deeper into the first verse, I can see the music slithering slowly up her microphone until it seems to come out of her mouth as smoothly as the lyrics. At this point I’m as close as I will allow myself to be out of control, sitting in a dark movie theatre next to a good friend, both of us crying our eyes out. Two friends on two separate occasions guessed that I would pin the blue ribbon on “Me and Mr. Jones,” but no, “Back to Black” has always been my favorite of Amy Winehouse’s songs. After the take, she smiles and says, “Ooo it’s a bit upsetting at the end, isn’t it?” Smiling at heartbreak . . . I know the feeling.
Before hitting the movie theatre to see Amy (2015), my friend and I enjoyed a sneak peak at Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait, “a personal and intimate exhibition about Amy Winehouse (1983-2011), curated by the Jewish Museum London with help from her brother Alex and sister-in-law Riva. The Winehouse family gave the Jewish Museum unprecedented access to Amy’s belongings, including her guitar, record collection, and iconic outfits.” (Contemporary Jewish Museum website).
Read more about the exhibition on Little Magazine by clicking here.
I fell deeper in love with Amy Winehouse and her music that day, despite the emotionally draining and soul-punching effect of Asif Kapadia’s documentary. The nauseating dizziness that forced me to shut my eyes several times may be the greatest praise that I can shower on this film. I wanted it to end immediately, and I wanted it to go on forever. Having been a fan of Winehouse’s for years, I avoided the movie for weeks, knowing full well what I would be walking into if and when I chose to see it. And let’s face it, folks, we’ve been here before – maybe the Titanic will make it to New York this time; maybe Sean Penn’s Milk will walk out of City Hall; maybe Amy Winehouse will survive it all, record ten more albums, and sing both herself and the world to a happier existence. Alas! I shut my eyes before the film reached its three-minute mark.
At the time when I was just beginning to educate myself on the black-and-white world of classic film, Amy Winehouse’s star was rising. Along with millions of others I was drawn to her voice, her constant nod to the girl groups of the 1950s and 60s, and her inability to be anyone other than the imperfect artist she was at heart. If your exposure to Winehouse was limited to the tabloids, the documentary may not hand you the emotional ass-kicking that it gave me, but for the fans of her music, personality and wardrobe choices, brace yourself – this one’s a troubled track wrapped up in an extraordinary film. When I woke up the next morning, I knew that something more than just the life and death of Ms. Winehouse had kept me from sleeping more than two hours on Tuesday night. But I’ve never been able to ask myself, “What’s wrong?” Instead I have to ask, “Do you know what’s wrong?” I didn’t until I picked up my pen a few hours ago.
Movie theatres, movie rental stores, the used DVD sections of music shops . . . they were all my “safe” places. I can have chats with myself about how living cooped up in an apartment riddled with fear is not truly living, but this one-man self-help seminar doesn’t always do the trick. I wish that I could banish all fear from my body and soul forever, or at least swat it away like a fly when it comes buzzing around my ear. I’m already vulnerable on this particular afternoon – logical or not, the Aurora movie theatre shooting planted a permanent sense of fear in my brain. I was able to tame it a bit on that Tuesday with the very thought that it was a Tuesday, it was the middle of the day, and along with about seven other people in the theatre, I was at a documentary, not a summer blockbuster. Aside from the tears caused by the subject of the film, I remained relatively in control except once, when a man sitting a few rows ahead of us stood up. I followed his every step from his seat to the door and waited anxiously for him to return. Why did he need to get up? Did he have something again fans of Amy Winehouse? Was he a crazed, number-one type fan who felt threatened by the rest of us? Or was it just a case of too much soda and a tiny bladder? The man returned minutes later, my eyes cautiously retraced his steps along with him, and my attention went back to Amy in her final days. After the film we slumped down on a couch in a wine bar across the street from the theatre, discussed it at length, and, as weakened as we felt, admitted that it had been a very pleasant Tuesday.
On Thursday there was another shooting at a movie theatre in Lafayette, Louisiana. The country closed its eyes again, somewhere before the three-minute mark.
Once again I’m left with too many questions . . . what can we do to keep it from always being upsetting at the end?