A biting view of Amy Winehouse's talents and demise is both broad and personal and altogether stirring.
It’s a strange realization to come to that more and more from here on out, documentary films will pretty much make themselves. The historical equivalent to picking up the diaries of the deceased and publishing them; now we need only piece together the digitized documentation of people’s lives. This process is easiest when it comes to celebrities, barraged as they are by media attention, documented far beyond what they probably would wish for themselves, immortalized in the camera phones of the masses. Director Asif Kapadia scarcely supplements the hours of pre-existing film of Amy Winehouse in his documentary, Amy. Amy would be turning 32 this year, and because of her age—and her immense fame—there are hours of video featuring the talented singer from a young age all the way up until her untimely death. Wisely Kapadia focuses his documentarian eye—or should I say ear?—on Winehouse’s musical ability. While much of her best work was steeped in the pain of her experiences, what Kapadia makes clear is that it was likely the pain and abuse from those closest to her, not her stardom, that would eventually lead to her demise. This revelation makes the pain of losing so large a talent painfully fresh.
The film begins with Winehouse, aged 14, singing a beyond-her-years soulful rendition of “Happy Birthday” to a girlfriend. Her talent is obvious. She feigns some self-consciousness in front of the camera, but her natural showmanship can’t be denied. From there she is captured on camera phones and digital recorders at her first gigs, playing in bars, on car trips with her friends and her first manager, Nick Shymansky. Very little is professional footage. Once they get into the years where she was picking up some fame, there are a few TV spots and formal interviews with her, but not many. Interestingly, what they reveal is a girl who cared very little for what the public had to say. In one especially hilarious interview the camera shows Winehouse, eyes rolling, as a reporter tries to compare her work with another popular artist. Winehouse’s priorities were always clear and evident. She wanted to make her music. Just as clear throughout the film are Winehouse’s addictions, to both substances and unhealthy people.
Kapadia did 100 or so interviews to capture the complete story of Winehouse, who ran in a variety of circles, famous and non-famous. None of the interviews are shown on camera, but they act as narration for the film. The clear voice of influence in Winehouse’s life is that of her father, Mitch Winehouse. He speaks about his affair and eventual divorce of Winehouse’s mother. She speaks at one point of her father’s absence, her tone implying life was better off without him. Later footage makes it clear just how much his departure affected her. In the song that would eventually shoot her to stardom, “Rehab,” Winehouse’s lyrics flash across the screen “They tried to make me go to rehab… but if my daddy thinks I’m fine…” Throughout the film Winehouse’s lyrics are featured on-screen, the truth of her life seeping through each of them. “Rehab” is no different, with Amy’s friends describing the first time they tried to get her help for her alcoholism. She would only agree if her father told her to. He said she was fine, so she didn’t go. A pivotal moment before fame would sweep into her life, lessening the influence of those who cared for her.
The rollercoaster ride of Winehouse’s fame, her stormy and obsessive relationship with former husband Blake Fielder, her six Grammy award wins, all play out, merging into the moments the audience most remembers of her. Her shocked expression winning her first Grammy. Her TV performances. Her tiny body growing thinner with each magazine cover. It’s all excellent editing by Chris King (Senna, Exit Through the Gift Shop) who manages to take what is mostly shaky unprofessional footage of Winehouse and stretch it into a film. Kapadia and King hold on Amy’s expressions as her friends and family talk through her path of self-destruction and they act as the inner monologue we’ll never be able to hear from Winehouse directly. Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, Winehouse’s childhood friends, provide the best picture of Amy Winehouse the person and it’s their regrets and passion that bring the most emotion in the end.
The saddest and most compelling theme of the film, though, is the real example of the effects of an absent father on a growing girl. Not to place blame, but the film weaves its story firmly around Amy and Mitch’s relationship. Kapadia chose the right thread to run with. The argument that many of Winehouse’s issues stemmed from the all-too-real psychological impact of the lack of positive male affirmation and attention early in life fits her tragic tale. Her adoration—addiction even—to Fielder is further testament to the long-lasting effects. What first feels like it will be the story of fame-induced-ruin is actually a cautionary tale around a prevalent problem. Compounded, of course, by fame but rooted in the significance of having a support system with the right intentions.
There are a number of scenes at the end of the film where the strobe lights of paparazzi are disorienting and uncomfortable. And this isn’t the only way Kapadia seeks to get the audience to feel the tension of Amy Winehouse’s life. In Amy, he has crafted one of the most sincere depictions of the truth of celebrity and the truth that it’s not always fame that creates personal demons. No one who sees this film will leave wishing for notoriety.
There’s a certain sense of inevitability in the death of Amy Winehouse. Those who remember it all say the same thing, that it was both shocking and unsurprising at the same time. Kapadia poses the question to us all: How could someone watched so closely, so obviously at risk even, die practically before our eyes? And what is our complicity in her fate? No matter your level of admiration for her music, this is the message that makes Amy essential viewing.