Amy is a captivating and upsetting documentary look at the brief, troubled life of superstar chanteuse Amy Winehouse, from director Asif Kapadia. Review by Katrina Conaglen at Edinburgh International Film Festival
There is a criticism oft-levelled at found footage horror movies: that it’s unrealistic that people would continue to shoot video footage in the face of imminent danger, when they should so obviously be seeking help. In a strange way Asif Kapadia’s gripping new documentary about the life of Amy Winehouse stands as a counter-argument: made up of private video footage, and a collection of television spots from chat-shows and awards ceremonies, it’s proof that when faced with obvious disaster people are quite happy to point the camera and shoot.
Like his 2010 film Senna (another tale of a stratospheric talent whose life was cut terribly short) Kapadia avoids the staid talking heads of a standard documentary by playing interviews as voiceover on extant footage of his subject’s life. Winehouse is first glimpsed as a mouthy, spoiled teen, that staggeringly huge voice gloriously fully-formed. It’s a brief trajectory from there: talented youth writes two albums, the second, Back to Black comes out when she is 23. It’s hailed globally as a masterpiece, winning five Grammys and international renown. Drugs, bulimia, alcoholism, depression, and troubled relationships ensue. By 27, she’s dead.
Anyone who has lost a loved one to addiction will feel the familiar pang of losing a person by degrees – her personality shifts from raucous, witty, intelligent and fierce, to vague, lost and tremulous by her life’s end. Early footage shows her arguing for a need for increased individuality in the music industry, her strong sense of musical integrity matched by her overwhelming voice. Quippy, mouthy, and boozy, she’s charismatic company, making her transformation into a listless and lost wraith all the sadder. Her now iconic image becomes steadily derelict, until she’s all scarred skeletal limbs festooned with an improbably huge, filthy barnet. A rat-infested Ronette.
Archive footage shows everyone from CNN to Graham Norton ridiculing her descent and addiction. The film condemns the media for taking ready glee in her troubles, suggesting they treat addiction not as a life-ruining illness but rather Faustian comeuppance for living a privileged life. Kapadia also suggests Winehouse’s father Mitch and charmless husband Blake Fielder-Civil were all too comfortable exploiting her fame for personal gain.
But it doesn’t wallow in misery without examining her talent. The film has a strong grasp of what made Winehouse remarkable: extended clips of both its inception and subsequent performances show Back To Black was instantaneously historic, a jazz soul masterpiece. She crafted lyrics both poetic and filthy, ribald and razor-accurate. Their transparent autobiography made them all the more fascinating.
There is a steady, cumulative power to Kapadia’s onslaught of footage, though it is complicated by one uncomfortable fact. Winehouse’s life was difficult in great part because it was documented in forensic detail even before she died. To revisit that footage seems like a reiteration of the initial intrusion. What rescues the documentary from invasiveness is Kapadia’s sense of compassion for his subject. He never ridicules or judges, rather the film’s tone is one of absolute concern for the fragility and loneliness of the singer.
Ultimately, though, there’s no catharsis, no sense of closure for the incredibly sad and brief story of Amy’s life. What’s left is an enduring sense of a soul in deep distress and of a leonine talent lost. It’s utterly, woefully heart-breaking.