Director: Asif Kapadia
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Date: July 3rd
Sometimes it feels like there is nothing left to be said. The short, desperately sad life story of Amy Winehouse was mashed into every tabloid newspaper each day, rolling through the collective mind’s eye thanks to Sky News, Heat magazine, and the Daily Mail’s Sidebar of Shame. It was a piñata filled with inevitable pain and destruction just waiting to be smashed. Isn’t it enough? Hasn’t the corpse been feasted on? The bones of a young girl sucked dry sating the celebrity obsessed? It’s not as if the general public aren’t aware of the fact that her slim legacy amounts to more than just a giant beehive & a substance abuse problem. This is the recent past, not some dusty, obscure history dragged into the daylight. Back to Black jostled with Rihanna in the charts; her contemporaries are very much alive. Is there a point to all this freshly-minted nostalgia?
The Amy Winehouse story cannot be moulded into a blank hagiography; it has too many sharp edges and heavy clouds of darkness that shouldn’t be avoided and yet should not suffocate her dazzling artistry. Asif Kapadia’s documentary is not a sanitised, cautionary tale or a re-hash of clips, talking heads and headlines. Instead it is an uncomfortable journey that sets about piecing together Amy’s story from those who knew her, amalgamating voices of friends, family, record executives, management, journalists and lovers attempting to assemble a collage of a complex life. These voices are ghosts themselves. The faceless soundtrack to images, tabloid photos, home movies, family photos and live videos of the singer filling up every inch of the screen, she is hardly ever absent from view, the unblinking camera attached to her like an umbilical cord.
These voices jostle against each other, sometimes fighting for attention to be heard as the authoritative ‘truth’ on a certain matter, sometimes in their oblivious bluntness uncovering a painful reality — in one telling moment her father Mitch states that his departure from the family when the singer was a child “didn’t seem to affect Amy.” The film then emblazons cutting lines from her soul searing track ‘What Is It About Men?’ across the screen acting like a stinging rejoinder. The narrative of the documentary is almost built around the brutal, desperate line from her hit ‘Tears Dry on Their Own’ – “I should have been my own best friend/ I fucked myself in the head with stupid men.”
The men being her own father Mitch and her one time husband Blake Fielder-Civil; who are painted in shades of villainy in glorious Technicolor, playing the twin roles of protectors and pimps along with the Hydra headed beasts of vacant record company executives eager to keep their precious hamster on the wheel, unquestionably spinning gold.
Although the jabs and blows are not solely reserved for the people directly in Amy’s orbit, as it implicates the viewer as a ravenous consumer, drawing the audience into the modern world of familiar grim voyeurism, watching too closely as she quickly moves from jazz club wunderkind to tabloid trash in a head spinning blur. The heat of the flashbulbs are felt bouncing off the screen, the audience as willing collaborators in this seemingly never ending circus of doom as the camera almost pornographically hones in on her ever shrinking frame, over and over.
Amidst this bleak, bruising commentary, chinks of light are provided by not only her devastating talent – her voice bursting into life at the film’s opening with her bluesy rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ aged 14, or the pin drop beauty of ‘Love is a Losing Game’ performed at the Ivor Novello Awards – but her dynamic personality. Halfway through the documentary, there is a perfect, poignant moment where the three versions of Amy Winehouse converge. Standing on stage in London’s Riverside Studios about to be beamed live via satellite into the 2008 Grammy Awards she twinkles, like the familiar pop caricature, all beehive & eyeliner tugging at her dress, slagging off Justin Timberlake. Her eyes widen in a charmingly vulnerable display as she watches her hero Tony Bennett walk onstage – ‘DAD TONY BENNETT!’ she half- grimaces, a bundle of childish nerves before staring in disbelief as she bags the award. Later amidst the cheers and celebrations she forlornly admits to her best friend that all of it means nothing without drugs. The respected artist, the loving daughter, the unhappy drug addict encapsulated in under three minutes.
The overwhelming frustration felt seeing the fantastically cheeky, mouthy girl brimming with wit and intelligence, rolling her eyes at the mere mention of Dido, disintegrate into a zombified Keatsian nightmare half in love with death, is the story’s true tragedy. The dichotomy between her outward strength and desire for artistic control and her emotional vulnerability and recklessness is littered throughout the documentary. Ultimately she fulfilled the myth, the role of the damaged soul in the mould of her heroes Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Ronnie Spector that she wore as a badge of authenticity in a world of perceived vacuity. Her own attraction to destructiveness is never shied away from but is at times slightly obscured in favour of the easy cartoon monstering of the ridiculous Fielder-Civil.
Amy is a documentary that asks critical questions about fame and the responsibility that all parties have in the modern star making process; from the family to the record company to the press and the consumer. How much is too much? Who grinds the machine to a halt? As the excruciatingly raw and divisive final image of her tiny body being carried from her home disappears from the screen, it would seem that in the end those answers should not have been that difficult to voice.