Dir: Asif Kapadia
When a documentary makes you feel partly responsible for the treatment of someone you never met it’s clearly very effective!
Using archive and family footage, this documentary explores the life and career of British singer Amy Winehouse, including her songwriting, personal life and struggles with addiction.
Director Asif Kapadia’s previous documentary feature ‘Senna’ captivated my interest in and even care about a driver I had no knowledge of, in a sport I don’t watch. Here it was a far more appealing prospect, I like music, this all occurred in my lifetime and especially as I live in the U.K. the regular and probing media coverage of Amy Winehouse was unavoidable.
Kapadia and his production team seem to be perfecting this style of documentary filmmaking and here again it is used to such powerful effect. Through use of footage and the audio of interviews, it follows an almost chronological order except a few clips from her youth to help illustrate family and specific things, from before she found fame. In the way that much of the footage is able to speak for itself, the interpretation is left more open to the viewer. Although the editing clearly adds a structure and unavoidably affects the way the material is perceived, it feels like it’s pointing in a certain direction, more of a general suggestion rather than a narrow path of thought. Also, almost surprisingly, the film doesn’t mention the final outcome of things in advance, it works towards it naturally in this chronological way that shows all of the events that culminated in it, developing the whole picture as it would have unfolded in life.
Thanks to Winehouse being part of the generation that have cameras on their phones and easy access to camcorders, a lot of footage is provided from friends filming things, intimately capturing her professional and personal endeavours. There are no ‘talking heads’, just the audio of interviews from a few key people, included at certain moments to most tie in with the footage and add another level to understanding what we’re seeing and the implications of it. There’s minimal archive footage used and a few still photos, many from the paparazzi when it’s most appropriate to use those rather than things from the more personal sources. This all makes the film feel very personal, at times almost uncomfortably so as we’re seeing things that were made by and intended for her family and friends.
This closeness however also enables us to see different sides to Amy’s personality, not keeping to footage from days when things were going well for her, but also when she wasn’t at her best at all. Some of this brought up things such as her struggle with Bulimia which I realised I hadn’t known about at all, and was interesting to learn about as that had a huge impact on her well-being. When showing some performances, key lyrics are written on screen, which I liked as it helps to tell as much as possible in her own words, a small insight into her thoughts as expressed through her songwriting and not just hearing the opinions of others.
That a song called ‘Rehab’ was her biggest hit feels bit wrong now, especially as the film sheds light on the circumstances that inspired the lyrics. Hindsight makes me feel like people should’ve been concerned rather than appalled, we would be if it was our own family or friends, yet somehow with this celebrity being jeered at in the media many of us laughed along with the jokes that now feel sickeningly in bad taste. I remember clearly watching the videos of her performance shown near the end of the film, and thinking that she was a mess and how bad it was, but now I know everything that led up to that point and how she really didn’t want to be there and was forced to appear against her will, so even I felt a little pang of regret.
Moments of the interviews are very honest, surprisingly so. Except one or two people who don’t seem to want to put themselves in a bad light, the majority seem to be very open about their involvement in Amy’s life even where there were failings. The film itself doesn’t point a finger at any particular person, event, or cause, rather it brings all elements into the frame and shows that it collectively added up to a bad situation. In the latter part of the film her decline is so clear, making much of the film very hard to watch, there’s a sense of foreboding, impending and unavoidable tragedy. The one bit of relief from this is a lovely bit of footage captured when Amy met Tony Bennett, who she clearly idolized, and they recorded a duet. While she’s still clearly struggling at the start, it turns into a great day for her, and her friends attest to this, plus Tony Bennett comes across as so patient and kind that it almost feels like things were about to get better.
Mitch Winehouse, Amy’s father, was very vocal in complaining about the film when it was released, maybe because he doesn’t come across particularly well at points, the testimonies of friends and some of the footage raises unavoidable truths for him. A lot of how she felt was linked to her father being absent when she was young, then in her later life he was much more involved. I saw him interviewed a lot in the news and often quoted as a representative of Amy, and the film shows how he used ‘we’ a lot when talking about Amy’s life and work, really making himself a part of her life and business. However, when it came to getting Amy the help she needed, the song tellingly says “if my daddy doesn’t mind”, which he at least for a time didn’t. Sadly there were missed opportunities, though that’s something for him and the family to reflect on personally, and the fact that the documentary made me feel strongly about the matter proves how effective it is.
I don’t have any criticism for the film, I think it’s a very good documentary making style that Kapadia has near perfected and more importantly it suits the subject perfectly. Rather than criticism, I have a warning that this style and subject work so well together that it’s a very difficult film to watch at times. Unavoidably tragic, the way the documentary is composed from all this intensely personal footage draws the viewer into Amy’s inner circle, so it’s uncomfortably close at times and almost makes you wish for some distance as things worsen. It’s a strength no doubt, but nonetheless one that’s achingly effective.
Amy Winehouse has been posthumously nominated for a BRIT Award this year, apparently thanks to the soundtrack. I had never listened to the album ‘Back to Black’ all the way through until this week but felt like I had to, so now this film may motivate others to either listen to some of her music for the first time or re-listen to it with fresh understanding. What it should hopefully motivate is people to reach out to friends and family members who are struggling with something and help them with more tenacity, not taking no for an answer. I think that’s more what the filmmakers wanted to convey, which ultimately they do, achingly so.
‘Amy’ is out now to own in all the usual formats, nominated for both a BAFTA and an Oscar in the ‘Best Documentary Feature’ categories. A very skilfully composed film that has an excellent chance of winning at both awards.