Editor’s Notes: Amy is currently out in limited theatrical release.
I really knew very little about the British singer songwriter Amy Winehouse, apart from what news passed through the media in the UK. I felt no deep attachment to Amy Winehouse and put her quick rise to fame down to her evident talent and uniqueness within the UK music industry. Taking that into account, I thought it was unlikely that I’d be rushing to the cinema to see this documentary. As the UK’s biggest grossing documentary feature to hit the cinema screens, I knew there had to be more to Amy than what I’d expected.
What Kapadia’s documentary doesn’t try to do is give answers or point fingers of blame.
There’s a lot that initially went through my mind when I saw the trailer, but the one thought that stayed with me was how the cult of celebrity and the treatment of celebrity culture in the media doesn’t ever let you see the person, it’s always the mask. Albeit in Amy’s case, this wasn’t always the happiest face on show.
Her tragic death in 2011 sparked more media attention than her music did, even when she was winning awards left right and centre. Her struggle with addiction to alcohol and drugs was closely scrutinised and heavily publicised during the heights of her fame as a performance artist and there’s much left to doubt about greater influences in her life. What Kapadia’s documentary doesn’t try to do is give answers or point fingers of blame, it just happens that at that time in her life drugs were a big influence on her actions and it openly represents how life was for her at her most vulnerable moments. It’s not the type of documentary that takes a direct question and follows it through with an immanent quest for unearthing answers. It doesn’t come across as trying to explain what happened to her, the combined interviews and footage seeks to show who she was, as people may or may not have understood her.
It’s not a clear divide between what the singer might have chosen to include or exclude, but there’s a representative edge to the editing.
How do you tell someone’s story in their own words when they are no longer here to tell it themselves? The conundrum that director Asif Kapadia set himself for his latest project seems quite the improbable task. Yet the finished product that unfolded before my eyes is itself the answers to all the questions I had.
Kapadia was given the rights to use a lot of old family footage that previously and deliberately hadn’t been released. Fans of her work will love the footage of small jazz club gigs in London from her early days as a performer. The voyeurism that comes from seeing her in private of moments on holiday feels at times too close for comfort, but when she doesn’t want to be on camera she makes it known. It’s not a clear divide between what the singer might have chosen to include or exclude, but there’s a representative edge to the editing.
It’s difficult to describe how you can read what they’re feeling without knowing somebody very well, but here it’s like you’re seeing Amy as Amy from all angles. Amy as a bashful teenager sleeping in a friend’s car, Amy singing a duet with her music icon Tony Bennett afraid she’s wasting his time. The darker realism of her addictions, mixed with the hurt of her relationships with her friends, family and lovers. The ups, the downs, and everything in between her fame and where she came from are depicted with certain sensitivity. The more intruding paparazzi footage is detailed and it’s the footage used that clearly outlines how she experienced the force of media, whilst truly emphasising how she felt in her reactions.
In so far as I’m content that Kapadia’s skill is the balance he brings to the storytelling at hand, there has been controversy. The use of the footage and lack of manipulation of the interviewees is evident to me, but Amy’s father Mitch Winehouse has spoken out about feeling misrepresented. His belief that the negative aspects of her life are focused on more than her career achievements has been voiced along with the announcement of another film about her life. The accusation was that the documentary’s editing has provoked a false representation of the singer and focused on the last three years of her life. In defence of these statements, it’s interesting to note that her father’s affair and parent’s divorce following greatly influenced her youth and her songs about the subject matter are telling. Working with what’s available and having access to more than anyone else has been given, surely if there’s more to represent of Amy’s life, it could have been made known. A comprehensive representation of a person seems impossible without a hint of bias. The reliance on why she’s the subject of a film is what she was known for, fame and the pressures of fame. Under everything else, the undercurrents of the legacy of fame are at the heart of her story and what became of her.
Everything I was questioning while watching the previously unseen archive footage opened up the appeal for Amy’s music, her realism as an artist and sympathy I didn’t know I’d have for a fame troubled girl. It’s a very well known and represented story, how fame affects and changes those who seek it. For Amy she was happy in the making music everything else was a surreal addition to all she could ever have expected. Kapadia has made no light of the gravity her death, or of the depth of person that Amy Winehouse was. He has eloquently offered a deeply personal documentation of her journey and life and an artist. Amy is a film that will capture the hearts of the curious.
Kapadia has made no light of the gravity her death, or of the depth of person that Amy Winehouse was. He has eloquently offered a deeply personal documentation of her journey and life and an artist. Amy is a film that will capture the hearts of the curious.