We first meet teenage Amy as she croons “Happy Birthday” to a friend. Even then, she wields her gift—that vocal volatility, that lilting smoke—with both surety and unease, a mixture that never vanishes despite her ever-increasing fame. She hides from the camera even as she owns it.
Asif Kapadia’s Amy—the stirring documentary that chronicles the life and all-too-early death of British megastar Amy Winehouse—runs like a multimedia timeline of Winehouse’s life. Kapadia is a master builder with borrowed material, as his more than two hours are exclusively comprised of photos and footage from her life and career. There’s no editorializing here, and his only authorial imprints are time-and-location stamps and superimposed, handwritten lyrics for the scenes in which he invites us to watch her sing. (And boy, are these scenes wonderful.)
Of course, the structure is the director’s—and he uses it to effect a perception that sees Winehouse’s music as a commentary that ran alongside her life with all its precipitous ups and downs. For example, she wrote the Grammy-winning “Rehab” after friends begged her to seek help for a growing drug and alcohol problem; this attempt failed because, as the song tells the world, “my daddy thinks I’m fine.” “Love Is A Losing Game” was born after the latest tumult with Blake, Winehouse’s on-again off-again boyfriend-husband love interest—her life’s antagonist whom she gravely mistakes as its hero.
Because of this, there’s an intimacy to the film you don’t encounter in many documentaries, even those that cover similar material. Recently, I’m reminded of Steve James’s wistful Life Itself, which covers the life and work of legendary film reviewer Roger Ebert with gratitude and nostalgia. It’s a fine movie, but more archival than emotional.
Amy, in contrast, feels jarringly present tense. We aren’t forced to watch those close to her as they try to recollect her life, or explain her importance, or make sense of her struggles. Instead, we are witnesses of a person named Amy Winehouse as she changes from a girl into a woman, a talent into a superstar, a free spirit into an addict, a life of promise into an ellipsis of loss.
More Than a Morality Tale
I want to talk about this movie as a Christian. First, then, I must confess the temptation to call it something like a cautionary tale—and leave it at that. With cautionary tales, we watch and wince and maybe even weep and then we move on, grateful for, in this case, better friends or better parents or the fact that we can walk to our cars without a gaggle of paparazzi squawking at our every move.
In other words, we’re tempted to watch cautionary tales like we’re tempted to read the Old Testament: stupid Israelites, always disobeying God and paying for it. We distill the narrative into a series of behaviors to emulate and avoid. We can be Pavlovian in our response to such stories and, as such, our responses tend to be little more than shaking heads and something that sounds like tsk tsk tsk and awwww put together.
Some of this is good and right, but left alone it’s incomplete. There’s a degree to which a “cautionary tale” assessment is legitimate; the apostle Paul himself sanctions this approach to the Old Testament: “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Cor. 10:6). “These things” is essentially shorthand for “the history of the Israelites, namely, their rebellion against God despite his blessings” (10:1–5). Similarly, one could say the history of Amy Winehouse took place as an example for us, that we might not desire evil as she did. And this is true. Drugs, alcohol, and bulimia are harmful; surrounding yourself with folks of questionable character—Proverbs would call them “fools”—is unwise; fame is fickle, and more than it creates happiness and contentment it creates insecurity and longing for something else, something better.
But you knew all of this before reading that paragraph, and, if you’ve seen Amy you knew all of it before watching the film. What’s more, Winehouse herself seems to acknowledge this on some level, a realization that becomes increasingly obvious throughout. All of this means that going to a movie like Amy simply for moral reinforcement or dissuasion is pointless.1
Why? Because just as we shouldn’t think of the Old Testament2 as simply a collection of morality tales,3 we also shouldn’t think of the lives (and deaths) of people made in God’s image as nothing more than a singular morality tale.
To be clear, I’m not encouraging Christians to check their worldviews at the ticket stand. Instead, what I hope to do is simply refine our palates such that we can watch films like Amy with a fuller array of appreciation, that our taste buds might be activated by more than a moral concern that elicits itself in deep sadness for a protagonist’s eternal state. Let’s not cut out that part of the tongue, but let’s not isolate it either, lest we be left eating black licorice the rest of our lives. To do so, I would argue, is not too Christian, but actually not Christian enough, as it obscures and misunderstands our main concern—namely, one’s relationship to their Creator—as our only concern.
So, with Kapadia’s Amy as our imaginative trampoline, I want to briefly offer three other responses that I believe to be distinctly Christian.
I recall a mentor of mine once saying, “The most important things about us are always the same.” Hold on, before donning your well-actually cap, let’s assume this is true; let’s assume the image of God is a playable trump card and that it renders our yeah-buts pedantic and unnecessary.
Suddenly, I am able to observe Winehouse’s life from a different perspective, one that allows me to resonate with her life’s general outline, even while having zero experience with the particulars. I’ve not been chased by paparazzi eager to profit from my besetting sins . . . but I’ve heard the hissing promises of the Accuser to out me as a fake, a fiction, and a failure. I’ve not been enticed by the addicting allure of alcohol or drugs . . . but I’ve been enticed by old sins, sins over which I thought I’d claimed victory only to taste miserable defeat yet again. I’ve not struggled with bulimia . . . but I know what it’s like to know where the mirrors are in a house, and to avoid them. I’ve not written songs that attempted to make sense of a life fraught with difficulty . . . but I’ve written words without music that attempted to do the same. I’ve not been married to someone who enables all my severest tendencies . . . but I’ve mistaken the antagonist for the hero too many times to count.
I could go on, and you could, too. The task of a Christian in relation to those who don’t share our presuppositions is first sincere empathy, then specific engagement.
In 1 Kings 5 Solomon asks Hiram, the king of Tyre, to cut down the cedars of Lebanon so he can use them for God’s temple. Tyre was not exactly a bastion of God-fearing holiness. It was a godless nation, in fact, but it was a godless nation with the best trees in the world—trees fit not only for the residence of a king, but the house of God.
Winehouse’s voice was like the cedars of Lebanon. Its beauty was objective, universal, almost scientific. Tony Bennett loved it as much Mos Def. It was a gift, even as the recipient remained unaware of its giver. To be sure, there’s a crucial difference here—Winehouse is a responsible moral agent; trees are not—but this difference doesn’t erase an ability, or perhaps an obligation, to wonder at God’s creation. He was pleased to use the cedars of godless Lebanon for his temple; I imagine he was also pleased to hear Amy Winehouse sing, even as he judged many of her words.4
This brings me to a last response: gratitude.
It is sub-Christian to be thankful for gifts that are given only to Christians. This kind of response ignores God’s authority over and care for all of creation, even as he may not care for all of creation in exactly the same ways.5 Put another way, life is not a zero-sum transaction wherein one receives only blessings to be thankful for or only curses to despair over; this is the fallacy of the prosperity preachers as well as the hatemongers of Westboro Baptist Church, though they fall off on different sides of the horse.
Instead, because every good and perfect gift comes from above, we ought to redirect our eyes heavenward, to our Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change (James 1:17). Among other things, this means our triune God is simultaneously the most generous giver and the greatest gift: God the Father has given himself in creation and revelation; God the Son has given himself in living sinlessly and securing salvation; and God the Spirit has given himself in the work of illumination and application. All of this means God is not a gift we merely appreciate, but one on which we depend and stake our very souls.
So let us be grateful for every gift that has God’s name on it. As we grieve the loss of those made in God’s image, whether Amy Winehouse or Steve Jobs or David Foster Wallace, let us also be grateful for the glimpses of God’s gifting we saw in them.
God of Beauty and Truth
In whatever we watch or consume, we are to be those who aren’t accidentally or inconsistently or begrudgingly Christian, but distinctly, deeply, and happily Christian. We love, serve, and have been saved by a God of both beauty and truth, by the God of the beauty and the truth.
Let us not fear that we’ve anything at risk when we bring our full selves to the table as we discuss any cultural artifact—whether Christian, non-Christian, or anti-Christian. We’d be foolish to think our eternal perspective is only valuable in eternity.
1 I’d also argue that, generally speaking, going to any film to see how it comports with your worldview is equally pointless, but that’s a conversation for another day.
2 The comparison isn’t perfect, as Scripture was written and organized under the inspiration of the Spirit, which makes the two texts on different playing fields altogether. But the undergirding principle holds: God didn’t intend us to use the Old Testament as a collection of disparate morality tales, so our responses should not suggest that he did; the Bible’s not Aesop’s Fables.
3 If your pastor treats it as such, you probably should leave your church and go elsewhere.
4 How God can feel such pleasure while he simultaneously feels displeasure is, yet again, another conversation for another day.
5 In Matthew 6:25–34, Jesus illustrates this point with birds of the air and lilies of the field as two groups that both receive sufficiently from God.