Asif Kapadia’s documentary Amy examines the short life and career of the talented but troubled singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, briefly charting her childhood in North London but focusing primarily on her rapid rise within the music industry during the 2000s and the problems in her personal life that followed. Using a variety of material (e.g. home video recordings, news and TV archives, live performances, mobile phone footage submitted by friends and fans) Kapadia and his team have created a sad and often intimate patchwork portrait of an artist that manages to avoid hagiography quite simply through its necessary examination of the star’s struggles with drug addiction and alcoholism, as well as her erratic behaviour as the media’s intense and insensitive gaze strengthened. As most people are aware Winehouse died at the age of 27 in 2011 of accidental alcohol poisoning, and without necessarily pointing the finger at any one person or group, one of the questions posed by this film is ‘why?’.
Amy begins 13 years earlier, during what appears to be a simpler (but not perfect) period in Winehouse’s life; home video footage shows a relaxed, happy teenager with two close friends, both of whom pop up regularly during the following two hours (though interviews carried out specifically for this film are not recorded on camera). Footage of Winehouse around this time is rarer, naturally, but there’s also a clip of an early performance with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra that showcases her fine singing voice. We discover, however, that Winehouse was severely affected by the break-up of her parents, which happened when she was nine years old: her father Mitch mistakenly believed the split only affected his daughter for a few weeks, though in fact it apparently led to a sustained period of depression and bulimia.
Even so, the earlier footage of Winehouse included here tends to suggest a happy, confident, outgoing young woman, and if she did have problems they’re not particularly evident in the film at this stage. In her own words she was a ‘gobby North London girl’ and it was her mix of attitude and talent that marked her out as a star in the making (one interview clip, in which a tetchy Winehouse can’t hide her disdain for a line of questioning that focuses on the bland singer Dido, is a highlight). And thus she charms the record company men, signs her multi-album deal, collaborates with other artists (including Mos Def, now known as Yasiin Bey, and Mark Ronson) and leaves the small venues behind for fame, fortune and Grammy awards.
There’s an air of inevitability hanging over this rise, though, and before long Kapadia must concentrate on Winehouse’s problems with alcohol and hard drugs. Ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, regularly depicted as a pantomime villain in the tabloid press, is fresh-faced when he first appears in the documentary: just another hipster on the pull at Trash, the club where Winehouse would regularly perform / drink. Fielder-Civil is often accused of introducing Winehouse to hard drugs, and some of his actions beggar belief (like the time she overdosed and then, while recuperating, he took heroin to her hospital bed three days later), but Kapadia highlights the fact that this pair of lovers were both addicts, and addicts think and act and connive with one another in ways that the rest of us cannot often understand. There’s no absolution for Fielder-Civil, but hearing his cracked, worn and sorrowful voice now (just ten years after the earliest visual footage of him in the film) tells its own story and is quite sad. Others will undoubtedly feel differently.
The other man who has regularly been painted as the villain of the piece with regard to Winehouse’s physical and mental decline is her father Mitch, who has recently made angry remarks about the documentary; his claim is that certain key figures have been left out and his own words and actions have been twisted. Like Fielder-Civil he doesn’t come out of it well, particularly because he famously asserted that his daughter didn’t need help when others, such as her friend and first manager Nick Shymansky, believed treatment was necessary (as documented by the hit Rehab). However Amy is clearly not intended to be a stitch-up, and though some of Mitch Winehouse’s actions are plain stupid (for example taking a film crew to St. Lucia where his daughter, hounded by the press back home, was convalescing), again the film is less interested in putting him forward as the bad guy than examining the combination of people, places and poor decisions that contributed to her problems.
Lastly Amy incorporates a damning indictment of the media’s role in creating a particularly sorry circus, from packs of paps hounding the singer from one Camden doorway to another (when she stayed at a private hospital every other room was rented by journalists from tabloid newspapers) to comedians and chat show hosts like Frankie Boyle, Graham Norton and Jay Leno, who are seen making mean jokes on TV about the artist’s struggles. Kapadia is clearly aware that these cheap gags seem even harsher today, in light of the musician’s death, but his footage successfully makes the point that (a) they probably shouldn’t have been made and (b) audiences probably shouldn’t be laughing quite so readily.
There is ample space reserved in the film for Amy Winehouse the performer, as opposed to the tabloid sensation, and interestingly the director chooses not to highlight her singing voice – mainly because it doesn’t need to be highlighted – and instead emphasises her skill as a songwriter, with relevant lyrics displayed on screen (though thankfully in a way that doesn’t encourage distasteful karaoke singalongs). As her songs were mostly autobiographical the effect works well, dovetailing with footage of – or anecdotal information about – her relationships in particular. Post-break-up hits like Back To Black and Tears Dry On Their Own will be familiar to many people who watch this film, but the songs take on an added poignancy thanks to judicious editing (Chris King, who collaborated on Kapadia’s previous documentary Senna, does a fine job here).
Naturally it is a sad film to sit through, and the death of the singer hangs over it from start to finish, but it feels like Kapadia has managed to get to the root cause(s) of Winehouse’s unhappiness and his examination of her short career feels exhaustive. The happier moments and the performances (great and awful) that are contained here merely add to the sense of impending tragedy, and the feeling that we have lost another rare talent far too young. The director does not appear to be interested in celebrating the notion of the ’27 club’ and has little interest in furthering the notion that living fast, dying young and leaving a good-looking corpse is something to aspire to. I was both gripped and moved by this illuminating and poignant work.
Directed by: Asif Kapadia.
Starring: Amy Winehouse.
Cinematography: Matt Curtis.
Editing: Chris King.
Music: Amy Winehouse, Antonio Pinto.
Running Time: 128 minutes.