Asif Kapadia’s latest documentary details Amy Winehouse’s woefully short life, in a way very similar to watching his previous film on the life and death of Formula One driver Aryton Senna. At all times, the experience is tainted by the knowledge of the impending fatality that hangs over the rest of the film like a heavy cloud. In Amy, there is no literal car crash, but instead seeing the devastating spiral of drink and drugs that led to the singer’s death is like watching as a disaster is unveiled in slow motion. To even the most hardened of critics, Amy is a heart wrenching reminder of the deceased star’s enormous talent, and an early contender for Best Documentary.
Kapadia has assembled a treasure trove of footage, from ample home videos to archive interviews and newly recorded material. Beginning with clips of Winehouse way back in 1998 at the tender age of 14, Amy charts the rapid ascent of the little Jewish girl from Southgate with the huge voice. From the moment her awe-inspiring singing began to be heard by the public, through her rise to the top of the charts and the album that would change her life forever, Back to Black, Amy details the highs and lows of her success. Of course, it will come as no surprise to anyone with even the least knowledge of the singer, that her short life was stained by drug addiction, bulimia and the tendency to drink so much that it would eventually kill her at the age of just 27.
Amy spends a significant proportion of its time revelling in the raw talent that Winehouse displayed as soon as she hit the music scene. Luckily for Kapadia, Winehouse and the friends that surrounded her as she began her career often had cameras capturing their shenanigans. The promise of her emerging capacity to captivate a room, the relative innocence of her perpetual weed smoking, and some cracking performances filmed by amateurs fill the documentary with vitality. Kapadia has access to the notepads of lyrics she wrote, at first written as private poems, but now with the words very publicly put up on screen as she sings.
The use of her songs is a persistent reminder of what was lost when Winehouse died. It isn’t just her voice that commands attention, but the achingly heartfelt lines of her songs that remind of the fragility and sensitivity of this extraordinarily talented young woman. Hearing Winehouse talk passionately about her jazz influences is to hear a woman who knew exactly what she wanted to be, with no desire to for fame and fortune. Kapadia milks her back catalogue, making the most of every chance he has to demonstrate how her songs came ripped straight from her heart; her rocky relationships put on the page and turned into something that the world adored her for.
And it is here that the seeds of tragedy are sewn together. While it is clear that Winehouse needed music more than any drug, the baggage that came with it destroyed her. Yes, she got in with a bad crowd, and the influence of one time husband Blake Fielder comes under particular scrutiny, but like so many tragic figures in the spotlight, the media frenzy surrounding Winehouse was equally to blame. Kapadia raises the volume of the screaming fans and the snapping paparazzi cameras until they are deafening and the music becomes all but drowned out. Using depressing footage of the way the press hounded and hounded her, Kapadia lays blame at the media’s door, as much as anyone else’s.
More controversially, Kapadia doesn’t let Winehouse’s famous father Mitchell off the hook either. Some of the most tragic moments in the film are where Amy and Mitch argue over his completely unexplainable decision to have a documentary crew follow the pair while they are on holiday. Winehouse’s parents appear either blissfully unaware of the full extent of their daughter’s problems or terribly indifferent. If anything, Kapadia may have been a bit harsh here and in many ways, it is a shame that the documentary cannot remain a testament to Winehouse’s talent, rather than at least partially about apportioning blame for her death.
Kapadia keeps most of his interviewees off screen, leaving only their voices to tell Winehouse’s tragic story. It seems he has talked to almost everyone Amy ever worked with, and the people that mattered to her most. Celebrities like Mos Def and Mark Ronson pop up, but it is the devastated voice of her best friend and flatmate Juliette Ashby that really stirs the emotions. Her anguished voice is heartbreaking, and a frequent reminder that these are very recent wounds that are not going to heal in a hurry.
For admirers of the singer, Amy is a definitive documentary chronicling the highs and lows of her short career. For everyone else, it is a chance to get to know the troubled woman behind the talent that was taken far too soon.
About the Author
Peter Turner Senior Reporter & Critic for Tastic Film Magazine.