Amy movie poster
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“Amy” Review. Oscar-nominated documentary series.

The next entry in my series on this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary feature is Amy, a well-crafted film that is like watching a beautiful Rolls Royce crash in slow motion.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably old enough to remember the meteoric rise to stardom that Amy Winehouse experienced, which makes watching this movie so surreal. It can seem like it was so long ago, when in reality it’s only been a little over a decade since her album Back to Black threw her into the global spotlight.

And it was that spotlight that killed her.

Amy is, put very simply, a movie about a troubled but extremely talented young woman with personal demons that were made infinitely worse by the pressures of stardom. You can’t come away from this movie without thinking that if only a few things had been different – if she had gotten treatment earlier or she didn’t get married or if her father hadn’t been her manager – that Amy would still be alive today. And that’s the true tragedy that this movie reveals. We all know how it ends, but it’s very sobering to see how many times it could’ve ended so differently.

The film tells the story of Amy’s life from the beginning, through a remarkable amount of video footage that spans years. It really seems like there was a documentary of her life being filmed since she was a teenager. We’ve lived in a digital age with ever-present cameras for a long time now, but no other film really drives that fact home like Amy. We get to see her grow from a plucky teenager to a worn out adult through camcorder and phone footage that is flawlessly edited together with professional shots and paparazzi snaps. The end result is as eerie as it is effective.

Music drove Amy’s life, and it drives this movie too. From her young days starting with a small label, to her explosive rise to the top of the global charts, we follow Amy as she writes her lyrics based on whatever is happening in her life at the time. All of her songs are about relationships: with her friends, with her family, with her boyfriend (and later husband), and even her relationship with drugs and alcohol. This film cleverly and carefully puts the song lyrics into the context of the story we’re seeing unfold on the screen, and that technique goes a long way towards giving us a very intimate and revealing picture of who Amy was and what her art meant to her.

But the art soon takes a back seat to the drama, and it’s almost painful to watch the last third of this film. As we witness Amy’s long battle with bulimia, drug/alcohol addiction, and a destructive relationship with her enabling husband, the story becomes less about her amazing musical talent and more about problems that could have been fixed with more consistent and stern guidance in Amy’s life. You do definitely see some of that in the movie, as record executives, Amy’s friends, and even therapists try to put her on the right path. But, as is mentioned in a very early part of the movie, Amy was the kind of person who desperately needed someone to tell her no. Her parents were never those people in her childhood, and not quite in her adulthood either.

Nobody really comes out looking good in this movie. Amy’s father comes off as a greedy opportunist, her former husband looks like an enabling self-interested d-bag, her mother comes off as loving but completely ineffectual, and Amy herself appears incapable of maturing past being the petulant young lady whose parents couldn’t control her.

But, most of all, it’s people like us that come out looking the worst. As I saw the paparazzi descend on Amy like vultures time and time again, as I watched late night talk show hosts make fun of her in front of millions, as I watched and remembered the entire world turning against this poor woman who clearly needed help, I couldn’t help but feel that we were all complicit in this. So often in our quest for idols, we lift our stars up to heaven and then tear them down and bury them when they don’t live up to our lofty ideals; offering no help or solace, just judgement. Amy shows us the other side of that experience, and it’s never flattering.

You can watch Amy for free on Amazon Prime. Check out my review of another Oscar-nominated doc, What Happened, Miss Simone

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“What happened, Miss Simone?” Review. Oscar documentary series.

I’ll admit it: I’m weird. I actually really look forward to the nominations for best documentary every year. The 2016 class is one of the best I can remember. They’re all sad stories, as documentaries often are, but each offers a compelling look at both the unique personal struggles that people face every day, and the harrowing dangers involved in movements that sweep across nations.

In this post, I review a film about an amazing, unsung titan of music history:

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Chronicling the unlikely rise, tragic fall, and comeback of singer, songwriter, pianist, and activist Nina Simone, this movie takes an unflinching look at a talented woman’s life through old footage, new interviews, and the revealing personal diaries she left behind.

I has happy to see Nina get some love here since pop history has largely forgotten her role in the music scene of the sixties and seventies. She wrote the classic, “Feeling Good”, which is one of the classic jazz/big-band songs and was more recently popularized by Michael Buble’s (capable but watered-down) cover. She influenced everyone from John Lennon to Alicia Keys to Adele. All throughout the movie, I saw shades of Lauryn Hill, and I was reminded that so much of who an artist is comes from those they idolized.

The film does a great job of chronicling her triumphs as a young black, Southern girl who wasn’t very pretty but she did have immense talent. That talent brought her out of her humble beginnings and made her a jazz legend, and the story is told through some interviews with family, but mostly in Nina’s own voice from various archival interviews she did decades ago. Everything is flawlessly edited together to create this sense that Nina’s almost talking to you, personally.

This is a documentary about a musician, so of course there’s a lot of music in it. Jazz isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, so I can’t say that everybody will love the music here. But every song is carefully chosen and timed to fit into the film’s narrative. This isn’t a fluff film about a singer’s greatest hits. This is an honest, holistic look at the life behind the music; a life that is a sad reality for so many artists.

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The movie’s strength does not lie in how it portrays Nina’s greatness. The film really works because of how it handles the truth of her weaknesses. She could be a menacing person, both in her performances and in her personal life with her husband and her daughter. We see and hear the people who knew her talk about how challenging she could be, but through Nina’s diary entries we also see that she was very aware of a maelstrom of conflict and emotion going on inside her. Her problems led to a dramatic downturn in what was once a lauded career.

The most controversial aspect of the film is Nina’s relationship with her husband and manager. It doesn’t take long to learn that he was abusive, and the film allows him the opportunity to tell his side of the story through footage of old interviews (which don’t really paint him in any better light). But the film also very clearly states that Nina seemed to be complicit in her abuse. There’s a sense that, in some perverse way, she lived for the conflict; perhaps even needed it. It is a brutally complex story that is woven throughout the middle of the film.

Later in the movie, we get a medical explanation for all those years of sound and fury that put Nina’s family, her managers, and promoters into chaos. But it comes almost as a matter of course. By that point in the film, any viewer can come to their own conclusion that she just…wasn’t quite right.

But her diagnosis (which is revealed through an interview with her daughter), leads into the final act of the movie where we see Nina enjoy a resurgence in her career. And, for the first time, she seems really happy to perform. It’s a peaceful resolution to a film that spent so much time detailing Nina’s rocky, roller coaster life, but it does deliver something close to what you almost never see in a documentary these days: a happy ending.

You can catch What Happened, Miss Simone? for free on Netflix. For a review of another Oscar-nominated documentary about a troubled starlet, check out my review of Amy

K-Pop appropriation of African American culture
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Cultural Appropriation vs. Celebration

Recently Twitter has been abuzz with the beef between white rapper Iggy Azalia and black hip hop artists Azealia Banks, who accuses Iggy of being oblivious of hip hop’s roots and exploiting black culture. Others have come to Iggy’s defense and said that culture can’t be “owned” by any one group. This particular argument is an old one, going all the way back to the Elvis days, but it got me thinking about what people don’t think about before they wrap themselves in a cultural cloth they weren’t cut from. I won’t take a side in this, because both sides have valid points and it’s more enlightening for us to find ground we can agree on instead of dispute. I think a key way to do that is to discuss cultural celebration vs. appropriation. Celebration is inclusive; appropriation is exploitative. Sometimes it’s obvious which is which, and sometimes it’s hard.

Is Wu-Tang Clan paying homage to Chinese cultural history, or appropriating it?

When RZA, a black man, stars in Man with the Iron Fists, which is full of Asian themes, is that appropriation or celebration of culture?

When Hollywood remakes Asian movies/TV series with all white casts, is that exploitation or celebration?

When Americans get Chinese/Japanese tattoos of characters they don’t even understand, is that appropriation or idolatry?

When Nicki Minaj wears a kimono in a video full of Asian themes (“Your Love”), is that appropriation or homage?

When Japanese manga/anime creators make a franchise called Afro Samurai, starring a black lead character (who much later ended up being voiced by Samuel L. Jackson in the English dub) inclusive or exploitative?

When Korean hip-pop and dance is basically just a copy of African American music, is that a cultural movement helping young people to defuse South Korea’s racism against blacks, or just appropriation to help Korea’s otherwise bland music scene?

In all of these cases I specifically used Asian examples because it’s important to realize this is not just a Black-White thing, and it doesn’t just happen in America. As the world has become more globalized, we all borrow from each other. But “borrow” is the key word. When you borrow, you give something back. When you steal, however, you’re just taking and you’re not giving back. We should all be happy when a culture has elements borrowed and they get benefit from it. We should all feel the injustice when culture is stolen. When a people’s culture is used by others and then those same people are excluded from the benefits of that use, that is a horrible thing.

Case in point: Avatar: The Last Airbender. The original cartoon was created by two white guys, but it is deeply rooted in Asian culture and history, and most of the cast is portrayed with darker skin. It’s pretty obvious that the vast majority of the cast are meant to be non-white. The cartoon was a celebration of Chinese history, culture, and martial arts, even including Asian voice actors. The animated series exposed American children to wonderful themes rooted in another culture, and even though the creators didn’t come from that culture they respected and portrayed it genuinely. The series gave back by showing that yes, you can have a non-European cast and setting and still sell to American kids. The movie directed by M. Night Shyamalan, however, was a tragic whitewashing of the lead cast (except the bad guys) and insult to all the good will and education the cartoon brought. It was not inclusive, it was not fair, and it was not done in good spirit. The cartoon was a celebration, the movie was appropriation. One borrowed, one stole. In all of these cases that raise questions, simply ask a basic question: What are they giving back?