D: Asif Kapadia / 128m
With: Amy Winehouse, Juliette Ashby, Nick Shymansky, Mitch Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil, Lauren Gilbert, Sam Beste, Raye Cosbert, Andrew Morris, Lucian Grainge, Tyler James, Yasiin Bey
One of the most talented singers of her generation, Amy Winehouse “arrived” on the music scene in 2003 with the release of her first album, Frank. Eight years later she was dead from alcohol poisoning. She was in the public eye so often, and so often for the wrong reasons, that a lot of people felt they knew her. Unable to deal with the fame and fortune she so justly deserved, she retreated into a life of alcohol and drug addiction and repeated, unsuccessful attempts to throw off the demons that plagued her. One of her idols, Tony Bennett, said of her, “she was the only singer that really sang what I call ‘the right way’ because she was a great jazz-pop singer”. But why did she die at the age of twenty-seven, alone and with only her bodyguard checking on her occasionally?
Sadly, Amy doesn’t provide any answers. Nor does it probe too deeply into why the singer had such an addictive personality, or why she had been bulimic for most of her life (a topic which is mentioned partway through then dropped as a point of fact that needs no further investigation). It also fails to explore the differences between Amy Winehouse the world-famous singer/celebrity, and Amy Winehouse the private person. While there are times when her friends and family comment on her behaviour, and there’s a large amount of regret that can be felt, no one seems to have really known what made Amy tick during those brief eight years when she was so well known and so highly regarded.
The reason that Amy fails to do this is partly due to the very cleverly constructed way in which it recounts Amy’s life, charting her teenage home life and early success with Frank, through to her increasing use of drugs and her alcohol dependency before the further success of Back to Black. From there the pressures associated with such an unexpected and meteoric rise were compounded by her poor choice of partner – step forward, Blake Fielder-Civil – and the lack of support gained from her family, in particular her father, Mitch, whose lack of empathy for his daughter is incredible to witness. All this led to repeated, and entirely predictable relapses following stays in various rehab clinics. With no one attempting to deal with her bulimia – or get her to – Amy’s health was so compromised by 2011 that those close enough to her knew that her drinking would eventually kill her.
But Amy is effectively reportage, a trawl through the singer’s life that relies on a great deal of archival footage of Amy and her friends, Amy and her working relationships, Amy on stage, Amy in the public eye, and the contributions of many of the people who knew her personally and worked with her professionally. And while some of the early, pre-Frank footage is beguiling to watch, and fascinating in a morbid way (knowing how she would look in later life), the later footage, once her demons have made themselves felt, leads the movie into darker, more disturbing territory. It’s at this point that Amy moves away from bittersweet reflection and becomes a rehash of the public and private life we all saw develop over those eight years. We see the public appearances where she seems overawed and/or overwhelmed, the sight of someone with the light in their eyes slowly dying out, and we gain the sad realisation that this person’s life can only end in tragedy.
Did we always know this? Certainly Amy’s friends knew this, and it’s likely that her colleagues in the music industry knew this, and the movie, while not pointing any fingers directly (or with any intention of doing so), does however make one thing clear: no one did enough to stop it. Her friends stepped away because they couldn’t bear to watch her destroy herself, and her record company wouldn’t work with her unless she was clean (reasonable in itself but for Amy an ultimatum she was never going to achieve, not in the long-term). In the end, that’s why Amy died alone and with only her bodyguard occasionally checking in on her: she had nobody she could rely on to protect her.
The sadness and the largely unavoidable tragedy of all this is brought out by Kapadia’s firm control over the movie’s content, and while some people, particularly Mitch Winehouse, have subsequently decried Amy as having produced “an inaccurate narrative of Amy’s story”, there’s little doubt that in the last three years of her life, when her problems became insurmountable, that she was desperately unhappy and struggling to find direction in her life. You can see this illustrated best when she’s seen recording a duet with Tony Bennett, one of her life-long idols. The confidence that has seen her give outstanding vocal performances time and time again has deserted her; she keeps apologising for getting things wrong. Bennett continually reassures her but you can see from her eyes that Amy isn’t convinced; when the session is done, you can see how relieved she is that she’s got through it all. It’s moments like these, when she clearly wants to be at her best, but her best is too far away for her to grasp, that prove the most disturbing and the most upsetting.
Could Amy Winehouse have conquered her demons and still be making great records today? We’ll never know, but one thing we can be sure of: her short career gave us many wonderful recordings, and it’s these lasting treasures by which we should remember her, not as the drunk, confrontational, tragically lost figure she was in her last few years. She was talented, incredibly so, and Amy reminds us of that constantly, even as it charts her downward spiral. She was always about the music, always about the irresistable pull of it, and thanks to Kapadia’s inclusion of several of her most iconic and meaningful songs, Amy is still a reminder of just how talented she was, and how much she will be missed.
Rating: 8/10 – a fascinating documentary that tells a fascinating story, even if we think we’ve seen it all before, Amy mixes archival footage of the singer along with candid commentaries from the people who knew and worked with her to create a devastatingly human story of tragedy borne out of success; that it doesn’t make judgments (except very cleverly) or arrive at any conclusions are the only things that stop this from being any better than it already is.