What we knew about Amy Winehouse, from her time undernearth record label contracts and invasive paparazzi spotlights, is all true. There are no grand revelations in Amy, the newest documentary from Asif Kapadia and one of the best documentaries of the past few years. Winehouse was a blessed singer with a shrewd enough personality and a soulful enough voice to achieve recognition almost as soon as she could sign for herself, and fame shortly thereafter. With that fame came a long tug-of-war battle with drug addiction, a stint in rehab, and finally death due to alcohol poisoning at age twenty-seven. These facts are well-recorded, and though they are recounted in painstaking detail here, they remain unchallenged. What makes this film’s exploration of the late icon so much more than just another ‘Behind the Music’ special is the way in which Kapadia fills in those spaces between the headline-grabbing parts we know so well.
What is revealed, and what ultimately sticks with the audience, is not the drug-fueled binges, the poor personal and career decisions, or even the Grammy-winning music that Winehouse devoted her young life to creating, but all of the minutiae of a real, honest-to-God life. Friends and family are introduced, childhood traumas, health issues, and personality traits both positive and negative are discussed, and a living, breathing human is depicted as a result. This is the story of a person with a life full of loved ones, grand aspirations and the talent to act on them, not of the foolish, spoiled drug addict we think we know.
Like many others struggling against the blazing flashbulbs of fame, Amy is the story of a human whose humanity was so easily forgotten by the millions who watched her life unravel before their eyes. Leading to her death, the press, the paparazzi and the public stripped away her humanity and boiled her down to a little girl who got too caught up in fame, exhibited poor self control and died early as a result, to a shrugged response of ‘how typical’ and ‘saw it coming.’ For two hours, Kapadia revives Amy Winehouse, gives her back her dignity, celebrates the brief life she lived and, finally, treats her death like the tragedy it was.
Like Kapadia’s previous film Senna (which I consider to be one of the greatest documentaries of at least the last decade), the visual portion of the film consists almost entirely of archival footage, with no floating head interviews or (shiver) recreations. Kapadia is insanely resourceful and efficient in his utilization of that footage. At first there is a strong reliance on the camcorder recordings which were shot by Amy and her friends during her teenage years, creating an air of near-painful intimacy from the very start. It sends heads spinning to think of the opportunities for future documentaries considering the hours and hours of video now so effortlessly shot on iPhones by millennials and generations to follow.
Later in the film, once Amy has garnered enough attention to be heard on radio stations and then seen on (more and more prestigious) talk shows, much of the documentary footage is taken from press, paparazzi and fan-captured video. The most genius move on Kapadia’s part is how he takes the more invasive footage and repurposes it into something that celebrates Winehouse’s life rather than the original purpose/effect of treating her as some money-making sideshow or object. In other words, the film reclaims her image back from the seedier edges of pop culture and returns to her the self-respect that was taken so savagely against her will. The film is not just a powerful statement on the dangers of forgetting the human behind the celebrity, but also a selfless act of kindness that unearths and repairs a tarnished soul.
Sound is utilized extremely well, with the sounds of crowded venues and paparazzi mobs cranked up several notches too high to convey the discomfort Winehouse went on record describing she felt being the center of attention. The footage is also often slowed down to give it an ethereal quality, which does justice to the grace that Winehouse displayed before her downward spiral. The only element I did not appreciate was the constant graphic overlay of lyrics over various performances, which comes off as lazy and simply is not visually appealing.
If the documentary’s back half seems to drag under a repetitive feedback loop of drug/alcohol binges and attempts to get clean, that’s because it accurately conveys what Amy’s life had become — the familiar mechanical cycle of addiction that is rather unpleasant to watch. We are left only to imagine how exponentially less pleasant it must have been to live. Whereas Kapadia’s Senna had a ceaseless forward momentum characteristic of its Formula One racer subject, Amy does not have that luxury. Her life was at times surprisingly ordinary for a documentary (reminiscent of last year’s equally-excellent Roger Ebert doc Life Itself), and at other times her career path and personal choices feel maddeningly redundant. Yet it’s that meandering nature, sure to bore some audiences, that is the price it takes to paint such a thorough picture of a complete life.
First and foremost, Winehouse is treated as a tragic figure, and her death as a tragedy. A real tragedy, not the weightless ‘news story tragedy’ that greeted us upon her death four years ago. Even the early depiction of her rise to fame is tinged with impending disaster, as we see every single door open for her effortlessly only to know that they’ve closed behind her forever. Yet, despite all the ugliness the movie shows us, it miraculously end up being a life-affirming one. It reminds us that, under all the dirtiness of celebrity and drug addiction, there is always a person in need of help and deserving of understanding. Amy Winehouse didn’t get the help she needed, or perhaps in the vortex of fame no amount of help would have been enough, but Amy has the power to change our understanding of her and others like her going forward.
Score: 4 out of 5