It’s not often you find two films in theatres the same week both featuring creative, self-destructive women named Amy who like to drink, curse and smoke. This once in a lifetime Amy Alignment has never happened in the history of cinema. My favorite celluloid Amy had been Amy Namey, Ace Reporter from the 2011 opus, Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer, but these Amys with their big girl problems are far more compelling. Truly, this July’s Amy Alignment was one for the ages.
The documentary Amy, directed by Asit Kapadir, is the story of English jazz singer Amy Winehouse, who rocketed to stardom on the strength of her 2007 masterpiece album, Back to Black. Using home videos, voice-over interviews, performance clips and song lyrics, Amy paints a troubled portrait of a slight teenager with an oversized talent who rises from small clubs in England to the top of the popular music world, a career that spanned less than a decade but saw enough success and travails for a lifetime.
This “very old soul in a very young body” writes and performs beautiful, heart-wrenching songs as her personal life spirals out of control. When Amy sings, “. . . my dark side has grown a mile wide,” you get the sense that things won’t end well. And they don’t. Amy had an uncanny ability to surround herself with men who have less than her best interests in mind. Her disconnected, opportunistic father, at one point, convinces Amy to skip rehab for the sake of a concert tour, more concerned with his stake in Amy’s career than in his daughter’s well-being. But the winner of “Worst Boyfriend/Husband of the New Millennium” goes to Blake Fielder-Civil, the man who introduced Amy to crack cocaine and heroin, and held such sway over her that she was never able to survive sober once he slithered into her life.
The saddest moment in the film comes during the 2008 Grammy Awards. Amy’s on the mend, in a London club watching the US broadcast, having just after performed her song, “Rehab,” nominated for Song and Record of the Year. Amy seems focused and lucid, and for a moment, we think she’s fixed what’s wrong in her life. She’s watching as her idol Tony Bennett announces her as the winner, Amy’s face full of joy, fear and wonder. As the video shows Amy searching for her friend, Juliette Ashby, in the crowd, we hear Juliette, through tears, tell us how Amy found her, whispering in her ear, “This is so boring without drugs.”
The film reaches its climax, and Amy’s nadir, when she implodes onstage in Belgrade, Serbia in front of a massive festival crowd. She walks out on stage – skinny, barely filling out her black and yellow dress as the crowd roars for her to sing. But she can’t – she’s too drunk or stoned or exhausted, and the show’s canceled, the young singer booed off stage. Amy would die less than two weeks later in her sleep in her London apartment, the cumulative effects of her struggles catching up to her with a vengeance.
In a different trainwreck of sorts, we meet the other Amy. Directed by Judd Apatow and written and starring America’s new potty-mouthed sweetheart, Amy Schumer, Trainwreck is the story of a single woman living in New York who wants it all – and by “all” I mean three square meals a day, a few snacks, lots of drinking, dalliances with zero commitment, and an exciting job writing for S’Nuff, a men’s magazine that’s a cross between Esquire and Hickey Technique Quarterly. Amy makes no apologies – she sleeps where and with whom she wants, drinks like an ad exec and barely masks her disdain for her younger sister who married a guy who dresses like Mr. Rogers.
As she narrates, Amy makes the point that falling in love is not in her plan, until of course, she meets the right guy. Anyone who’s been paying attention at the movies for the past forty years knows exactly where this is going, but it’s fun to watch Amy and her doctor boyfriend figure things out.
Trainwreck is a film of superlatives – best use of the word, “pineapple”; best portrayal of a long-suffering New York Mets fan; best use of ‘80’s Billy Joel since the Catalina Wine Mixer; best Truth or Dare effort at a baby shower, and the best use of an NBA Hall of Famer as an earnest Downton Abby-loving cheapskate with a budding career as a relationship counselor. It’s funny, raunchy and held my interest right through the predictable ending.
If I were a women’s studies post-doctorate candidate, I would now offer an erudite position about how Amy Schumer’s portrayal of a sexually confident woman comfortable in her own skin makes her character a role model and icon for a post-feminist world. At one point, Amy remarks to a Knicks cheerleader about a provocative dance routine, “You’re gonna lose us the right to vote.” Is that some sort of coded feminist statement, like fish riding bicycles? Who knows - I’m no Misha Kavka, and I also never felt that Susan Gamble’s argument about post-feminism and its inability to remain a product of assumption wasn’t persuasive enough. I’ll take funny over feminism any day, and Trainwreck has lots of funny.
And it’s one I’ll watch again on cable, but not with my parents unless I keep the volume low and fast-forward through the elder neglect parts. On the other hand, I’m not rewatching Amyany time soon – it’s compelling but also painful, sad and a little too long – kind of like the Shoah of boozy self-destructive jazz singer documentaries.
I can’t help feeling a little tricked by Trainwreck. Amy’s character is one we rarely see – assertive, hilarious and confident, rejecting the notion that happiness comes only when you settle into a domestic groove rather than live a life of late nights, no kids and a panhandling hobo for a neighbor. Amy says no to the subtle restraints we place on women in our society – be attractive but not slutty; have a few drinks but don’t close the bar; flirt with the intern but don’t sleep with him –and we’re fooled into thinking she’ll have it her way. But Amy doesn’t find fulfillment until she gets fired, quits drinking, apologizes to family, mourns her dad and learns that little kids can be endearing. Amy has to resort to a dance routine with the very cheerleaders she suggested would roll back suffrage to win back the man she lost, but I’m no feminist so “Dance, Amy, Dance!”
Both movies left me with a sense of sadness. Amys can’t make it in this world unless they find a man to tame their wild streak. Amy Schumer wrote a happy ending for herself, but in the real world, Amy Winehouse was surrounded by men who stood aside as she rode that wild streak into an early grave, caring more about her singing than her survival (“Sing, Amy! Sing!”). If only she had the other Amy to write a happier ending.
(Amy, directed by Asit Kapadir, is rated R for lots of bad decisions, the worst boyfriend ever, drug use, foul language, questionable dental work and great music; in select theatres and soon to be available for streaming online.)
(Trainwreck, directed by Judd Apatow with screenplay by Amy Schumer, is rated R for all sorts of stuff your mom wouldn’t approve of; in theatres now and probably a great DVD stocking stuffer for that sister of yours who seeks direction and fashion tips.)