A documentary by Asif Kapadia
Kapadia has said he wasn’t particularly a fan of the British singer Amy Winehouse, who died in July 2011, before he made this doc. That claim of objectivity—this isn’t a fan letter of a movie—is something to keep in mind while watching.
With dozens of interviews with people in Winehouse’s inner circle, this in-depth profile feels like an indictment of many of them; her North London cabbie father, Mitchell—one of his daughter’s most vocal supporters who has come out as a critic of this film—comes off pretty badly. People at her record company and some of her handlers not much better. Her ex-husband, Blake Fielder Civil, seems like a narcissist and an enabler.
But we in the audience aren’t entirely free from the filmmaker’s judgment, either.
We start with a fresh-faced teenager singing “Happy Birthday” to her BFFs, and right away we can see she had a natural sense of poise and technique, absorbed from years of singing and listening to jazz records. She’s also got natural charisma in front of the camera. That raw footage is a total joy—it gives us the illusion we know her a little, and it makes the tragedy of her later years feel all the more personal.
Thanks to some intimate performance and in-studio footage, and Kapadia putting up on screen the lyrics of her songs when she sings, we have plenty of evidence of her singular talent as both a singer and songwriter.
There were times I did wish the doc had been a little more about the music and a little less about misery of her personal life in the public eye. She was an intensely autobiographical songwriter, so I get the connection, but I suspect there was more joy, too. As I mentioned on a recent Lens Me Your Ears on music biopics, I tend to be more a fan of musical docs exploring the creative process than fictionalized dramas of artists’ lives, but this feels like more of a biopic to me. It’s concerned with how she fell as much as how she rose.
But, I must admit, that’s an emotional reaction, the result of being a little tenderized by this film’s intensity.
I’d wager a third of the footage, most of the last act of the film, is paparazzi video and photos taken when Winehouse became an international sensation following the release of her 2006 retro-soul recording Back To Back. Nothing makes one feel more complicit than sitting through reams of flashbulb-lit tabloid footage of the performer at her most vulnerable; suffering from various addictions, bulimia, a broken heart, and a particular aversion to the kind of massive fame her work earned her.
There’s no way the filmmaker, having now revealed his subject, remains as objective as he claimed he was to start. He includes clips of comedians and media personalities who had a field day with Winehouse’s very public humiliations, and he excoriates the media for its hunger, and thereby all who enjoyed paying so much attention to her problems.
Amy seems to be saying we’re all in some way to blame for her sad fate.
Amy opens at the Oxford in Halifax Friday, July 17