Amy Asif Kapadia
Published Jul 09, 2015The 2011 death of singer Amy Winehouse at the age of 27 seemed like a depressingly inevitable outcome when it actually occurred. Despite the fact we all know how the story ends, the deflating impact of her death is not lessened by watching Amy, a testament to the film's meticulous attention to detail and emotional impact.
Much like Senna, his documentary on the Brazilian Formula One champion Ayrton Senna, director Asif Kapadia eschews the use of talking heads to tell the singer's story, relying on audio interviews with people close to the singer and the archival video footage at his disposal. Some of the material, provided by the likes of Winehouse's ex-manager Nick Shymansky, is very intimate, finding the often humorous and playful Winehouse on vacation or backstage before a gig. Voice mail messages, journal diary notes, personal photos and family movies are stitched together for an undeniably personal portrait.
The film opens with Winehouse singing "Happy Birthday" to a friend, and it also features the singer training the camera on herself, musing how her head looks like its floating in the frame after a studio session. Kapadia uses Winehouse's visage as a primary asset to tell the story, and given her later descent into drugs, the effect is devastating. However, Amy suggests the beginnings of Winehouse's issues are rooted in her childhood.
The exploration into the singer's issues with bulimia, depression and ultimately her fatal attraction to alcoholism and the inability of her parents to deal with or confront these difficult issues is presumably why the Winehouse family — despite their participation in making the documentary — have ultimately disassociated themselves from the film. Winehouse's father Mitch comes off particularly badly, especially when the subject of rehab — the experience Winehouse fearlessly mined for her biggest hit — is first broached. He is, however, is a primary musical influence on his daughter, and the cultivation of her infatuation with singers like Sarah Vaughan and Tony Bennett is only lightly touched upon in the film.
While a little scarce on how her influences shaped her, the film brings her undoubted artistry to the fore, scrawling her lyrics across the screen in a calligraphic font, underlining the poetic prowess that lurked beneath her alluring voice. Through Kapadia's lens, it's suggested that Winehouse's only respite and therapy from her multiple personal problems was music. In a foreshadowing interview recorded around the time of her debut album Frank with MTV, the singer — who did not suffer fools gladly in these situations — warned not to expect anything else from her except music. So, when external influences — most disruptively, her on and off again relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil — were channelled into the virtuosity of the Back to Black album, the vulnerability that fuelled her intimate songwriting left her ill-equipped to deal with it otherwise. The visible shock on her face after winning Record of the Year at the 2008 Grammys (the previously unaired onstage banter prior to the win is priceless), underlined her incredulity at comprehending her own success.
In handling Winehouse's final descent, Kapadia fingers a number of culprits for her demise. Fielder-Civil, who introduced Winehouse to hard drugs and had a seemingly impregnable hold on Winehouse, is particularly culpable. Yet the camera flashes of paparazzi — slowed down for maximum soul-destroying effect — as well as friends and managers with conflicting agendas, certainly didn't help Winehouse's attempts to stay clean either.
Amongst all of this chaos, Kapadia still highlights her artistic sensibilities above all else, despite the tabloid frenzy that surrounded her life in the months leading up to her death. Near the end, Kapadia treats us to outtakes of a studio session with Tony Bennett and discussion of the mooted collaboration with Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), Questlove and Raphael Saadiq, leaving us to wonder what might have been.