Directed by: Asif Kapadia.
Amy Winehouse’s life followed a short, tragically clichéd arc, where the singer rose for humble roots, becoming one of the biggest music stars in the world, before dying at the age of 27 from alcohol poisoning, after years of abusing her body with drugs, alcohol and bulimia. Too many music stars – from Jim Morrison to Janis Joplin to Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain – have lived similar arcs, and Winehouse was, like them all, extremely talented, and also completely unable to deal with fame. She may have had it worse than the others in one sense though – becoming hugely famous in 2006, in England, assured that she would be hounded by the notoriously awful British tabloid press throughout her short marriage and slow spiral downwards. One of the best things about Asif Kapadia’s documentary Amy, which chronicles her rise and fall, is how it shows her life among the paparazzi as a kind of constant, without getting bogged down in it. The audience doesn’t need to be told about the paparazzi and their effect on Winehouse, because in the late stages of the movie there is hardly a scene of her in public where she isn’t surrounded by dozens of reporters shouting questions, and snapping pictures, and throughout, in interviews with Winehouse even before she became super famous, the actress says she wishes she won’t get, or wasn’t famous – that she could just make her music and be left alone. That isn’t the way it works however, and Winehouse ended up dead at a tragically young age.
Kapadia also directed Senna – about the late car racing icon, a documentary that a lot of people loved, but I thought played like an average episode of the great series 30 for 30 –fine, but nothing spectacular. Amy is a far better film – more intimate, as it has access to a lot of footage that was previously unavailable. In terms of recent musician documentaries, Amy falls squarely in between the brilliance of Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain doc Montage of Heck, and the by the numbers approach of Liz Garbus to Nina Simone in What Happened, Miss Simone – although closer to the former than the later.
The documentary form has, in many ways, become stale – with archival footage intercut with talking head interviews – a format that is used in practically every doc, and always makes them feel like a CNN Special Report to me. That isn’t to say that form cannot work (if the content is good enough, it will overcome those limitations), but I much prefer something like Amy, which feels far more intimate than most docs. While the film has many new interviews with the people in Winehouse’s life, Kapadia mainly keeps them off-screen – like narrators – as he sticks to the footage of Winehouse herself – both her public and private sides. It isn’t quite the impressionistic montage that Morgen made of Montage of Heck – but it’s certainly a strategy that keeps the focus on Winehouse, rather than those around her.
Of course, as with nearly any documentary of this kind, there are people who are not happy with Amy – namely her father, who comes across horribly in the movie – as the various witnesses (including Winehouse herself in interviews), which paint him largely as an absentee father during her childhood, and then someone who exploited her when she got famous. Her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, doesn’t come across very good either. The media didn’t help either – not just the paparazzi, but even the mainstream, media – the documentary has clips of the likes of George Lopez and Jay Leno cracking jokes about Winehouse’s well known demons – which follows a cycle we see to often in our culture – mocking those who have struggles when they’re here, and then treating their death like a national tragedy when they die. Perhaps if they didn’t mock her the way they did, things would be different. Yet what emerges from the movie is that Winehouse largely doomed herself – she pushed away people who could have, and would have, helped her, refused to go the rehab, and surrounded herself with the wrong people. Others contributed to her downfall – but no one more than Winehouse herself.
Amy is a revealing documentary – one that reminds just how talented Winehouse was, and the great music she produced in her short career. Particularly revealing is early footage of Winehouse, where she was much more jazz oriented than her more popular music was later – and she also appears to be much happier playing for those smaller audience in clubs than for millions on TV. Perhaps she could have been saved had she not gotten as big as she did.