From the toxic influences of Blake Fielder and the drugs he introduced to the intrusion of the hounding media, Amy explores Amy Winehouse’s life forced into the public. Filmmaker Asif Kapadia brings us this documentary film following the success of Bafta award-winning Senna, another posthumous recollection of a life ended too soon. Amy is a poignant piece of filmmaking that makes us sit helpless and watch the life of a legendary jazz singer and songwriter go to waste, and question what, or who, were the catalysts.
Amy consists of home video, interview and performance archive footage with the exception of establishing shots for locations. In addition, her lyrics appear on-screen at relevant points with her voice echoing them hauntingly. The story is told over these visuals by the voices of close friends, family and work relations and in this way, the documentary truly feels like a retrospective wherein the filmmaker does not further intrude on her life. Subtle contrasts are made through careful selection of the footage used. We are shown Winehouse perform her single that broke America, Rehab, on the Jay Leno Show. We then see the same talk show host that greeted her so warmly use her as the punch-line to his jokes thirty or so minutes later in the documentary. Kapadia highlights the vicious quickness in which we went from reverence to ridicule. It is interesting to hear that Winehouse’s father, Mitch Winehouse, was quick to accuse the filmmaker of “trying to portray me in the worst possible light” when Kapadia’s use of archive footage allowed for little manipulation. Perhaps the laying out of her private and public life in parallel forms a fuller story untold, and the toxic personalities in her life seem to just highlight themselves.
There is a moment which perhaps best illustrates the heart-rending tone of Amy. Awaiting the announcement of Record of the Year at the 2008 Grammy awards, a newly sober Winehouse jokes, “he called his record ‘What Goes Around Comes Around?'” with a shady look of judgement at nominee Justin Timberlake. Then, when her idol Tony Bennett utters her name as winner, the room erupts around a motionless Winehouse with eyes reminiscent of McCullin’s ‘Shell-shocked Soldier.’ Such wide-eyed innocence, a moving reminder of her vulnerability, brings many in the cinema audience to tears – more so than at the announcement of her death in the last few minutes of the documentary. Many in the audience hope this is a sign of true recovery however the voice of childhood friend Juliette Ashby tells us of how she was pulled aside by Winehouse, had her tearful congratulations ignored and told, “this is boring without drugs.”
Throughout the documentary film, Kapadia makes us hope for a different ending to a story we’ve already been told. We know all about her public life already thanks to the papers discussing her drug addiction, paparazzi documenting her daily movements and intrusive TV documentaries such as her father’s My Daughter Amy that potentially stunted her recovery. But, now that we’ve finished consuming her as entertainment news, we may hear Amy’s exploration of how her private life, intruded by demons and pressure, was forced into the public where it was fashionable to ridicule a bulimic depressive with drug addictions and a vulnerable personality. Winehouse’s turbulent life makes for a compelling story which Kapadia tells well, and fans will appreciate the use of live performance, raw studio recordings and previously unheard demo versions of her songs as opposed to album tracks. All the while, as we enjoy her music and large personality, we are posed with difficult questions about our patterns of media consumption and treatment of celebrity. As we sit in the darkened cinema, in meditation, Tony Bennett’s voice brings Amy to its credits. His advice to her is in tragic retrospect: to “slow down. Life teaches you how to live it if you live long enough.”