Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse documentary is a surprisingly tender film that not only reveals her as an artist but offers a terrifying insight into the machinery of fame.
AMY: Directed by Asif Kapadia
What’s immediately arresting about Asif Kapadia’s film is the amount of video that was shot of Amy Winehouse. Not just the TV and paparazzi footage of her fame but home video shot by friends, and video diary of her early days as a singer, shot by her friend and manager, Nick Shymansky.
And it’s used to wonderful effect becoming both a metaphor for her fame and a tender insight into the psyche of a gifted musician.
Take the first shots of the film…
A teenage party, two girls messing about, giggling, sucking lollypops and chatting with the a third who’s holding the camera. One of them is the young Amy Winehouse, the other two are friends who stayed with her to the end and speak candidly about her throughout the film. It’s a masterful opening scene for a documentary – it speaks about intimacy, friendship and a life lived in front of the cameras. As part of the first 20 minutes of this 2 hour film, it sets you up to fall in love with Amy – her young vulnerability, her love of music and jazz in particular, her talent as a writer of oddly off-beat lyrics and her surprising talent with a guitar – so that you’re the more shocked when it all starts to go horribly wrong for her.
What’s beguiling about the film is the way this footage is used. It’s woven with news images, clips from interviews, performances and TV shows, cut hard up against footage from inside the paparazzi scrum or from fans in the audience. It’s a technique that Kapadia has used before in Senna. Amy’s story is told chronologically, using archive footage, explained and commented upon by many of the people in her life. But Kapadia’s stylistic device is that we never see these people, we only hear their voices, talking about Amy or the events that we’re seeing on screen. It’s a device that builds builds on a style developed by Julien Temple in his films with the Sex Pistols and the Clash and at first is frustrating – you want to see the people talking – but after a while it has the effect of forcing you to watch what’s happening, to concentrate on the story and what’s being revealed by the images.
And the images are horribly revealing – they show the furious demands of the paparazzi who made her life a misery, the cruelty of comedians who mocked the skeletal young woman she became and they show an addled and wasted Amy stumbling through interviews and shows.
The film does what all good journalism should, it gives the viewer a new and revealing perspective on something that they thought they knew, un-earths new facts and offers even handed perspective. What shines through are two themes that would dominate her life: an early love of music that went far beyond the usual teenage pop fascinations; and yearning for a constant male figure in her life. Her music intertwines these two themes, the refreshingly broken rhythms of her melodies delivering fractured, layered lyrics that mix observations about her father with feelings about her great love, Blake Fielder.
As tempting as it must have been to offer pop psychology drawn from the gossip columns and paparazzi shots, the film is surprisingly un-judgemental. Although it’s clear that her relationship with Fielder was hugely damaging and led her deep into the world of drugs and alcohol, it’s also clear that it was mutual, that however much he rode on her fortune to get easy access to drugs, she also had the same desperate need for them too.
The same goes for her father, Mitch. It’s clear that they had a troubled relationship, that Amy was fundamentally affected when her parent’s marriage ended and that she was angered by his self-interested reaction to her fame. But it’s also clear that they loved each other. Both Mitch and Fielder are interviewed extensively but the film stops short of judgement, allowing only a single moment of measured criticism, when Nick Shymansky speculates that an early attempt at getting Amy to rehab my have been a missed opportunity because it blocked by Mitch who thought Amy was ok. The moment is recorded in her song Rehab – “my Daddy thinks I’m fine” – and in the film this song becomes a millstone: as her fame escalates and she plunges deeper into alcohol and depression, the demands on her to sing her massive hit, again and again become visibly unbearable.
It’s a mark of Kapadia’s skill as a filmmaker, that even though we know the tragic end of the story, it’s still shocking and revealing to see how far Amy Winehouse deteriorates and how tantalisingly close she came to pulling through. In the last months of her life, the bloodied and battered Amy is replaced by a tanned and relaxed young woman, who appears to have put the drugs behind her and is grappling with her alcohol addiction. Her sudden death comes as an almost un-expected ending to the film.