Amy brings a tragic star back to life
Amy is the best film I’ve almost walked out on at the cinema. Not because it is a bad movie, but because I knew how it was going to end.
I knew how it was going to end before it started, of course, having witnessed the tragedy of Amy Winehouse’s dramatic rise and fall from the rabid perspective of the media not so long ago.
What makes the opening hour of Asif Kapadia’s earnest and heartfelt documentary so unbearable is that it brings Winehouse back to life so vividly. She fills the screen as a smart, funny, vulnerable, brash, beautiful, sublimely talented young artist, and it dawns on you that you’ll have to watch her die again from a different perspective, with greater knowledge of her as a human being, rather than just the addled tabloid caricature she eventually became.
Back when Winehouse was on TV all the time, often clearly out of her face on drugs and/or booze, it was awful – like standing in the street watching someone teetering on a window ledge far above you, unsure whether they’d make it back down to safety. Or jump, or fall, or perhaps a combination of the two. And all you could do was watch, with a mixture of horror, sympathy, shame, and perverse anticipation.
Kapadia, who won plaudits for his clear-eyed portrait of doomed F1 driver Ayrton Senna in his last film, has meticulously curated a vast array of video footage, cut together so seamlessly that Amy has a natural flow so rare in documentary film. He quietly condemns the media for their part in Winehouse’s downfall, apparently unaware of the dreadful irony that without their copious amounts of material, his film would be impossible, or at least be just another bunch of talking heads.
Kapadia also employs the technique of putting Winehouse’s lyrics up on the screen, to demonstrate their autobiographical nature. This is no surprise – it was always obvious that she was writing and singing about her life, but the classic sound of the production perhaps created a distancing effect. It seems rather vulgar that people are still making money from her biggest, radio friendly hits like Rehab and Back to Black long after she’s dead, songs which delve so deeply into her personal troubles behind the pop-jazz veneer.
Naturally, the men in her life come off rather badly. Her great love and eventual husband Blake Fielder-Civil, and her father, Mitchell Winehouse. It is a testament to Kapadia’s generally objective view that he doesn’t villainize either man immediately. While Blake is unapologetically a dead-eyed, self-serving wide boy, the film does make it clear that he and Winehouse did, initially at least, find each other soul mates, and were in love. The tragedy is that Amy’s idea of love was somewhat different to Blake’s.
Mitchell Winehouse has been vociferous in his objection to the film, claiming it is dishonest and portrays him as the villain. It doesn’t…not quite. It does portray him as a weak and dim-witted man, so dazzled by his daughter’s fame that he can’t step back and protect her when she needs him most. It also comments on the squalid reality TV phenomena of relatives of celebrities becoming D-list celebrities in their own right, riding on the coat tails of their talented family members.
Ultimately, Amy becomes a bit of a bummer in the second half, because it abandons the lyrics and the character study, and becomes a straightforward rise-and-fall tale. While Kapadia’s heart is clearly in the right place, we lose focus of the real human so vibrantly portrayed in the first half, and we end up with the parody she became in the hot glare of publicity, the wild skinny girl with the crazy beehive and sailor’s tattoos.
Despite my reservations about the unimaginative direction Amy eventually takes, it is still one of the films of the year. Unlike to dour and gloomy Kurt Cobain in Montage of Heck, Winehouse is a witty, warm and rambunctious character to build a documentary around.
She was an ordinary woman who just wanted to have a laugh, fall in love and sing her songs, yet she was also a mercurial, earthy one-off with prodigious talent for music, and a preternatural wisdom for heartbreak.