I don’t tend to review films here, especially ones with no literary connections, but sometimes something affects you in such a way that it demands your attention and further discourse. So here it is.
Asif Kapadia’s documentary on the short life of British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse opens with camcorder footage from a teen girl’s birthday party. As the group of girls share childish jokes, they break into a rendition of Happy Birthday, which is quickly dominated by a soulful voice with echoes of the golden age of jazz singers. It’s all the more amazing to hear it coming from an adolescent girl. It’s a view of Winehouse that very few of us were privy to, and it’s a stark reminder that even the most tragic endings had to begin somewhere.
Winehouse’s talent was undeniable in life, although often overshadowed by her painfully public struggles with drink and drugs, and Kapadia’s greatest triumph in what could have been borderline misery porn is to highlight her musical prowess. Lyrics from her witty, devastating and deeply private songs appear on screen to emphasise the blurred lines between artistic and personal that fuelled Winehouse’s creative process. It’s an effect that mostly works, although there are moments where you feel like you’re in a karaoke bar.
Compiled entirely from private footage, TV interviews, behind the scenes shots and so on, Amy is refreshingly free of talking heads and instead relies solely on audio interviews with those closest to Winehouse to tell her story. As friends, family, colleagues and fellow musicians share their tales, the artfully compiled and edited footage shows the singer from her early days to her heights of fame and the subsequent downfall. This impressionistic view of her life offers a rich, deftly handled and contextual portrait of someone who was denied the chance to do so in life. Not only is Winehouse a one in a million musician; she’s a funny, warm and personable North Londoner with a deep love for what she did. Two scenes involving Tony Bennett highlight that even the most famous of us geek out over our idols sometimes.
Winehouse’s father Mitch has since publicly condemned the film and the way he’s portrayed in it (spoiler: it’s not positive) but Kapadia remains staunchly dedicated to truth in his telling, while never outright slamming or pointing the finger at any individual for the singer’s death. Ultimately, it seems as though everyone is to blame on some level: Promoters bundle her into cars to gigs she’s clearly not fit to perform at, her dad infamously says she doesn’t need to go to rehab and seems happy to exploit his connection to her for his own purposes, her mother admits to not being strong enough with her and ignoring a bulimia confession, and her ex-husband introduces her to several major hard drugs.
Then there’s the press. The film is at its most difficult to stomach when it shows the barrage of paparazzi she faced daily. The camera lingers on still shots that show her increasing deterioration in the public eye, and footage of smug comedians and catty newsreaders cracking cheap jokes at a clearly ill woman elicit equal parts aggravation and contemplation. It’s clear in hindsight that something was deeply wrong and Winehouse needed help, yet it was also clear at the time, and that inaction hurts all the more for it. Kapadia may not be making personal judgements but he’s crystal clear in his anger at the parasitic system that turned a hurting woman’s pain into disposable jokes.
Amy is a wonderful film that’s hard to recommend because by the final 20 minutes of it, I just wanted it to end: Not because the film is in any way bad or glorying in the sadness it conveys but because it’s so raw. I remember when Winehouse died very clearly. I was leaving work that day and checked Twitter to see the news. The next day I was watching the story unfold on the BBC in the work waiting room when one of my colleagues just sneered about how it was inevitable and how she had no sympathy for ‘druggies’ (I hated that colleague, for the record). I was angry then and I’m angry now. It is my hope that Amy, a thoroughly well-made and compassionate piece of work, will remind the world of the necessity of empathy.