Dir: Asif Kapadia
Altitude Film Distribution, UK, 2015
Starring: Amy Winehouse
“Oh, it’s a bit upsetting at the end, isn’t it?” – Amy Winehouse on recording her vocal for the song ‘Back to Black’.
In July 2011, Amy Winehouse became part of the quasi-mystical ‘27 Club’ by joining the long list of supposedly doomed musicians who died long before they should have. Despite only releasing two albums, her music, her legacy and her life – the subject of this thoroughly absorbing documentary by Asif Kapadia (Senna, 2010) – are a stark reminder that you don’t actually know what you have until it is gone for good.
During the mid- to late-2000s, I spent a lot of time plugged into a Sony Walkman or iPod Shuffle listening to something along the lines of Faith No More’s Angel Dust, Ministry’s Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs or other similarly abrasive albums from a bygone era. In other words, I paid very little attention to what was going on in the charts and wouldn’t have even called myself the most casual fan of Winehouse’s music. I do remember admiring her voice and overall style simply because she seemed a little out-of-step with the pop music charts that she soared, but I certainly never went as far as buy Back to Black. For all I knew, given her Jewish appearance and distinctively husky vocals, she hailed from Brooklyn never mind a small London suburb.
Despite my considerable lack of association with Winehouse’s music before watching Amy, this documentary sideswiped me. It upset me deeply, bringing me as close to tears as I’ve ever come being sat in a cinema. It’s a hard thing to admit considering that I often possess the emotional capabilities of a deck chair when it comes to visceral responses to film, but in itself it is a testament to how Kapadia has wonderfully captured the promising rise and harrowing fall of this singular talent.
Amy contains no actual talking head interviews with Winehouse’s family, friends, work colleagues or any contemporary artists stating the obvious by waxing lyrical about how much of an influence Winehouse was on their music. Instead Kapadia has exhaustively composed the entire documentary of: archive footage, home videos, news & TV broadcasts, live performances, mobile phone footage, voicemails, etc. In the place where talking head interviews may ordinarily be are infrequent audio-only interviews – that sound more akin to surreptitiously-recorded conversations with Winehouse’s friends and family – that often have the effect of a narrator’s insight to the images on screen. In turn, this astute technique ensures that the focal point never strays from Winehouse, just as the title suggests.
What we ultimately have is an incredibly moving collage that covers the last thirteen years of Winehouse’s life: documenting her meteoric rise to fame and tragically succumbing to her own demons. The various recordings and performances of her already very autobiographical songs have been presented like diary entries with the lyrics appearing handwritten on the screen – effectively speaking for Amy. There is, of course, an inherent element of artifice and liberties being taken here, but it is a great touch that serves the chronology nonetheless.
Amy also gives us an insight into the various struggles the singer had with addiction, illness and her failed marriage that made her an infrequent source of fodder for the tabloids and paparazzi. In doing so, the documentary also serves, very successfully, as a meditation on the pitfalls of being a celebrity as well as an incisive indictment of the way the media mercilessly targets those in the limelight and infringes upon their privacy during times of personal trauma in the name of ‘fair game’. In my opinion, this extra warrant for serious contemplation helps Amy rise above Montage of Heck among the year’s best musician-docs as it offers a lot more food for thought than merely telling a story that most people will already know or expect.
Furthermore, we are shown Graham Norton, Frankie Boyle and Jay Leno using Winehouse’s decline as a punchline and real scenes of her being hounded by journalists to such an extent that she repeatedly lashes out at them – all during the time when she appears most vulnerable. That she is heard repeatedly throughout various stages of the documentary stating that fame does not particular interest her – that it would, in her own words drive her mad – makes these moments all the more heart-breaking to witness. As Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def), a fellow artist and friend of Winehouse assesses: “She didn’t really know how to be that thing that she had been pushed to become”. Sure, it could be interpreted that, to some extent she brought this distress upon herself and that being a celebrity doesn’t come without such tribulations. But when the film presented these scenes to me, all I could do was watch in horror, angered by Winehouse’s tormentors – an indication of terrific editing.
As the ultimate testimonial to the diva, Amy succeeds admirably. It doesn’t attempt to bluntly place blame onto any one person, including herself, for her death. Instead, the film appears to be striving solely for catharsis in understanding her frequently turbulent career, without dwelling longingly on hints of lingering antagonism. Considering that my introduction to Amy Winehouse was most likely through a newspaper headline exploiting her troubles, this documentary shed new light on her and her talent and completely won me over in doing so. All that is left to say is that I left the film thinking that, regardless of her troubles, the late singer should be remembered and celebrated. One of 2015’s best films so far.
– Liam Hathaway