‘Amy’ documentary reveals sexism Amy Winehouse encountered in her short, tragic life

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Amy Winehouse is shown at age 14 in the new documentary "Amy." Photo provided

Amy Winehouse is shown at age 14 in the new documentary “Amy.” Photo provided

Unflinching but never heartless or sensational, director Asif Kapadia’s new documentary Amy asks how the life of retro-jazz singer-singer Amy Winehouse spiraled into an untimely death at the age of 27 with so many people watching.

As I note in my 3 1/2-star (out of 4) review, the smoky-voiced chanteuse’s too-short life and seemingly inevitable demise played out less like the proverbial trainwreck and more like a full-on derailment, ghoulishly documented for maximum tabloid enjoyment.  With his compelling and empathetic portrait, Kapadia, best known for his acclaimed 2010 Formula One documentary Senna, takes plenty of people to task on her behalf: the paparazzi who constantly bombarded her with shouts and flashbulbs, the comics who joked about her eating disorders and substance abuse while those demons killed her (George Lopez is shown quipping “someone to wake up her drunk a– and tell her” while announcing her astounding six Grammy nominations) and the fans who reveled in the raw realness of her songs like “Rehab” and clamored for more, even when Winehouse made it clear those tuneful confessionals were based on her real life.

Even more, Amy truly takes our entire culture to task, revealing inherent sexism that women face in their everyday lives, sexism that only intensifies when women dare to pursue careers as artists or become famous – even when, as seems to be the case with Winehouse, they don’t really desire their celebrity status.

Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning four years ago this month, but a weakened heart from years of battling bulimia is believed to be a contributing factor.

Winehouse’s mother – portrayed in the film as ineffectual as her father and husband were manipulative – reveals to Kapadia that the singer-songwriter started binging and purging was only 15 years old; instead of seeking help for her daughter, she hoped it was just a phase.

Camcorder footage of a fresh-faced, full-cheeked, 14-year-old Winehouse crooning “Happy Birthday” in that distinctive voice contrasts ominously with the gaunt, dead-eyed singer who achieved global fame. More than that, it is a tragedy that indicts our entire modern society. The pre-bulimia Amy Winehouse looks healthy and far from fat, but she still felt compelled — at FIFTEEN — to begin to mortally abuse her body to achieve that all-important goal of skinniness.

After all, our culture only really accepts one body type among women: skinny. At any cost, no matter how unrealistic that is for any particular woman. Despite the efforts of the Dove soap marketing department and various body image campaigns, that’s the only look that our culture really considers desirable among women, until it reaches the extremity that Winehouse did in her later days, when she was so obviously unhealthy and dangerously gaunt. Then, the prevailing media response seemed to be disgust and mockery, but sadly, very little pity.

As Oscar winner and People’s Most Beautiful Woman Sandra Bullock recently commented, “I feel like it’s become open hunting season in how women are attacked and it’s not because of who we are as people, it’s because of how we look or our age,” she told E! News. “I’m shocked—and maybe I was just naïve, but I’m embarrassed by it. My son is getting ready to grow up in this world and I’m trying to raise a good man who values and appreciates women, and here we have this attack on women in the media that I don’t see a stop happening.”

Since I haven’t seen Brett Morgan’s documentary Montage of Heck, about the life, art and death of Kurt Cobain, I can’t emulate Molly Beauchemin’s excellent Pitchfork column contrasting that film with Amy. But I have no doubt about the veracity of her conclusion that comparing the two films “sheds light on how unequal the treatment of male and female artists truly is, even in death.”

“Even though both deaths were motivated by depression underscored by narcotics and celebrity, Montage depicts a context in which the public was willing Cobain to succeed, whereas Winehouse, when confronted with similar drug-addled obstacles, was met with ridicule and slander,” she writes.

“If Amy proves anything about the life and times of Winehouse, it’s that newscasters, tabloids, and even respected media outlets reported on her shortcomings with enough thinly-veiled aggression to weaken what little resolve the drugs hadn’t already sapped. Cobain’s struggle with drugs, meanwhile, was all but an open secret while he was alive, whispered about or written around in order to maintain good graces and access to the superstar and his band.”

Although Beauchemin acknowledges that Cobain died in the pre-TMZ era while Winehouse’s rise and fall happened right in the age of Internet ubiquity, the writer also goes back and compares the way the media covered the deaths of Janis Joplin vs. Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday vs. Keith Moon, Whitney Houston vs. Michael Jackson and finds an alarming consistency in the unfairness in the portrayal of women as recording artists. For women, their struggles and addictions are outlined in lurid detail, while their gifts – and Amy very pointedly reminds the audience of Winehouse’s gift as a songwriter as well as a singer – are undermined, or even worse, credited to the men in their lives or career.

“Women who succeed in a big way upset convention, and we haven’t yet figured out how to deal with that as a culture. When women succeed as Winehouse did, we anticipate their downfall and pounce hard, relish the sillage of failure when we get a whiff,” Beauchemin writes.

“We martyr our women because we fear their greatness. We do so because we fear women who are living out of bounds.”

Talk about tragic.

Good news and bad news about Minions

Speaking of Sandra Bullock, she helped the animated prequel I never wanted win me over. The Minions were never my favorite part of the Despicable Me movies, but as I noted in my review of the spinoff movie Minions, the little, yellow, different critters manage — just barely — to frolic through enough sight gags, pop culture references and sheer lunacy to keep their madcap 91-minute star vehicle rolling.

Set primarily in 1968, the prequel chronicles the adventures of three intrepid Minions – Kevin, Stuart and Bob (all voiced by co-director Pierre Coffin) – who go on a quest to find their tribe a new baddie to serve and advertently earn a promising gig with Scarlet Overkill (Bullock), who has used her feminine wiles, seemingly nurturing nature and impressive gadgets designed by her Mod inventor husband Herb (Jon Hamm) to become the world’s first female supervillain.

Aside from their sinister designs on world domination, I loved the healthy marriage depicted between Scarlet and Herb. He is so in love with her that he took her name, and he fully supports her nefarious goals. In turn, Scarlet thinks Herb is brilliant – and rightly so, since he manages to pull off the lava lamp gun – and adores him in return. It’s really rare to see that kind of mutual respect and adoration reflected in any Hollywood film.

Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment’s Despicable Me franchise has turned baddies, and yes, their Minions, into heroes, and I instantly fell for Scarlet, a baddie who can both outsmart and beat up the other bad guys, as well as Herb, who may be a genius inventor and loyal hubby but also is a really fun guy. Scarlet’s psychology subtly calls out the princess culture proliferated by rival animation house Disney: Her first task for the Minions is to fulfill her childhood dream of snatching the Queen of England’s (Jennifer Saunders) crown or face the dire consequences.

So I was enjoying Minions better than I ever expected, except for one thing: Despite an origin story that goes back to the primordial age the prequel never explains why all the Minions are male.

Now, the Minions may not actually be male, but they all have male names, wear male clothes except for when female attire is obviously played for laughs, and they are referred to by “he,” “king” and other male pronouns and nouns. So, they may not actually be male in terms of anatomy, but for all intents and purposes, they are male.

That’s strange enough, but then Coffin, who created the little yellow creatures, gave this explanation for why all the Minions are male: “Seeing how dumb and stupid they often are, I just couldn’t imagine Minions being girls,” he told TheWrap.

Um, what? So girls aren’t allowed to engage in dumb comedy? Talk about making matters worse.

While some have speculated that Coffin simply picked the default gender – and male is, unfairly enough, the default – for his gibbering creations, I think it’s probably simpler than that – and more complicated to fix. Since Coffin voices all the Minions, and he is male, he made them male. He probably never even thought about making some of them female. This is why we need more women filmmakers, people, and that’s why that recently reported statistic that across 1,300 top-grossing films from 2002 to 2014, only 4.1 percent of all directors were female is so darn alarming. It’s why we can’t have nice things and female Minions.

By the way, the Associated Press reports that Universal’s Minions overran the box office over the weekend as audiences in the U.S. and Canada shelled out an estimated $115.2 million to see the babbling banana-obsessed sidekicks. It was the second-biggest opening ever for an animated film.

Quick hitters:

– Reporting from Comic lifCon in San Diego, Ca., A.O. Scott writes in The New York Times that “At Comic-Con, it Feels Like the Year of the Woman.” About 50 percent of the badge-holders at Comic-Con were women and girls this year, he reports, just as women and girls make up roughly half of all comic-book buyers and video game players. With such cinematic heroines as Inside Out‘s Sadness and Mad Max: Fury Road‘s Furiosa, Comic-Con’s women attendees even had cosplay options this year that didn’t require donning skintight, cleavage-baring catsuits.

Ain’t progress grand?

“Nobody is suggesting that a utopian age of sexual and racial equality has dawned in San Diego or anywhere else,” Scott writes. “The default Comic-Con panelist is still a white man, but it does seem that more of an effort has been made to correct this lazy lopsidedness here than in, say, the Hollywood studios a few hours up the freeway. If the entertainment business is still dominated by interlocking old-boy networks — in the movie studios, the bigger comic-book publishers, the television networks and among the writers, artists and directors those entities employ — the audience is challenging that status quo.”

– On that topic, I’ve never heard so many people so excited about jumpsuits as when director Paul Feig tweeted out a photo of his Ghostbusters reboot starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones suited up in full costume, utility belts included.

For many women, that’s probably because the all-female Ghostbusters team will be fighting ghosts with their wits and proton packs and not the power of their cleavage and high heels. If you take a look at many of the female Ghostbusters Halloween costumes available on the market, you realize this could have been scary for reasons that have nothing to do with ghosts.

As Variety.com reports, the first-look photo comes more than a year ahead of the film’s expected release date of July 22, 2016.

– The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences now has 17 women on the board of governors, compared to 14 for the past year, reports Variety.com.

The organization unveiled its new board members Friday morning. Elected to the board for the first time are Lois Burwell, makeup artists and hairstylists branch; Michael Giacchino, music branch; Rory Kennedy, documentary branch; and Daryn Okada, cinematographers branch.


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