Amy is a film so filled with frustrations, about what might have been and about what could have been done differently, that it is difficult not to feel drained upon leaving it. If indeed one can leave it, as director Asif Kapadia has assembled his portrait so effectively that it will likely linger with you long after it’s over.
Kapadia’s endeavour has been blessed with such a wealth of archival footage that he is able to focus solely on his subject, beginning with a teenage Amy Winehouse, without ever having to break our focus with filmed interviews. Instead, the tales and opinions from those close to her, alongside Amy’s own distinct voice, float across the images that they describe, giving us a greater depth of true feeling and genuine emotion. Every quiver of their voices, unburdened by a camera of which to feel self-conscious, magnifies the tragedy we see unfold. The focus remains on Winehouse, which serves to exaggerate the sense of someone so constantly seen through a lens.
Many will already be familiar with the broad strokes of Winehouse’s story, unavoidable in the press for what was really just a few short years, but felt like forever at the time; it seems shocking to be reminded that her final album, ‘Back to Black’, was released in 2006. It’s interesting to hear the entire story from the beginning, rather than just that well-known final period. What comes across most is the idea of Winehouse as someone completely in love with music, and how the restrictions placed on her ability to simply ‘create’ were at the very least a contributing factor in what came later.
Another such factor is the matter of Amy’s parents. Her mother at least admits that she never handled her daughter well, essentially ignoring a 15 year old Amy’s admission of bulimia. It is father Mitch who comes across particularly poorly, as he has for many years; prioritising her touring commitments over her health, showing up with a camera crew when she sought solace, and of course saying that she did not need to go to ‘Rehab’, thus inspiring her most famous hit. Hearing, and enjoying, the song now it seems remarkable that the world just sang along and largely ignored its message.
Indeed it’s the music that stands out, carrying the film along as the lyrics appear on screen to further hone their deeply personal meaning. Throughout this musical reacquaintance, seeing those early performances and interviews when she displayed such wit and humility, it is easy to understand why she was so quickly propelled to stardom. Though it becomes incredibly difficult to watch as the media harassment progresses, and footage of the constant paparazzi attention makes for guilty and uncomfortable viewing. And so, when the inevitable moment arrives of her body being wheeled from her Camden home, it is difficult not to feel a cutting sense of shame in the fact that even this most private moment was held up for all to see.
Kapadia has managed to structure a deeply moving documentary, while the music and footage of happier times allows for moments of reflective celebration of her undeniable talent. There is perhaps little to learn for much of the audience in terms of the narrative, so much of the story was already known, but there is real insight into Winehouse’s behind the scenes feelings. Amy serves as a fitting tribute to the troubled artist and a stark warning for the dangerous repercussions of our celebrity obsessed culture.
★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Written by Christopher J. Smith
Amy is on wide release in UK Cinemas now.