“Something that needs to be heard and seen, daring in its deconstruction of both its subject’s life and the concept of fame as our culture perceives it in the 21st century.”
by Ken Bakely
When Amy Winehouse sang, people listened. Her unmistakable voice – husky, deep, and soulful – conveyed a rawness which was hard to come by during her rise to fame in the early-to-mid 2000s. However, her incredible momentum came at a heavy cost: in the coming years, she entered a lengthy struggle with drug and alcohol addiction, which ultimately proved fatal in 2011. Now a member of the so-called 27 Club (a list of famous musicians who died at that age), Winehouse is the subject of Asif Kapadia’s film Amy, a tragic drama of a documentary, which potently edits hours of intimate home video footage into a gutwrenching 128 minute package, a movie ultimately respectful of Winehouse’s talent and legacy, but also provocative in its depiction of a startlingly fast ascent and an irreversible descent.
Kapadia roundly criticizes a global media circus which condemned Winehouse’s every stumble with jokes and flippant dismissiveness. Yet he doesn’t do so through direct editorializing or even talking-head interviews – Amy eschews those elements entirely, and instead the movie shows us a near-unbroken stream of archival footage, as voiceover soundbites from the singer-songwriter’s relatives, friends, and professional collaborators occasionally dot the sequences. Last year, What Happened, Miss Simone?, another biographical documentary about a famed songstress, negated the power of its subject matter by framing the proceedings in a boring and choppy way. Kapadia avoids mistakes of that nature here, and as a result, a clear narrative arc forms in an unmanipulated, organic way. There’s a scene from the first few minutes of the film, in which Winehouse, in the early stages of her career, states that she worries she would not be able to handle then-hypothetical worldwide fame. This turns into a haunting omen of the downward spiral which would consume her in a matter of years.
However, Kapadia’s film is not error-free. There are times where Amy does not recognize the raw efficiency of the somewhat minimalist approach of simple storytelling-through-clips, and believes that a canned post-production technique is required; after playing back an interview clip of Winehouse mentioning how every song she writes is intensely personal and autobiographical to an extent, Kapadia doubles down on greyscale, loopy visuals in which Winehouse’s music is played while the lyrics prance across the screen in handwriting-emulating fonts. It’s moments like this where everything else is pushed off, in which the aesthetic raison d’être of the project is harmed by artificiality puncturing an otherwise chillingly unfiltered portrait.
But give the filmmakers their due. They have made as upfront a profile as you could imagine. It doesn’t sensationalize Winehouse’s downfall, nor idolize her as a pristine victim of everything-and-nothing. Instead, it illustrates that many of the factors leading to her addictions and vices originated in personal faults, both of her own and of the people she was surrounded by. I believe film critic Mike D’Angelo is fond of saying that the best litmus test of a documentary’s effectiveness is asking oneself if the project could have been a book and worked roughly as well. Amy easily passes this examination. It is something that needs to be heard and seen, daring in its deconstruction of both its subject’s life and the concept of fame as our culture perceives it in the 21st century. As Kapadia continues to advance the timeline, we see hawkish press sappily venerate Winehouse in her achievements and brutally antagonize her in her darkest moments. It’s an exhausting idea to unpack through a screen, and even more unbelievable that someone lived it, and others still do.