Amy, like its predecessor Senna (2010) is a biographical documentary woven from fragments of a life – a mosaic of images illustrating recollections from friends and family delivered in voiceover not as talking heads, a stylistic decision that presumably is intended to distinguish these films from less artful documentaries. The story told here is, for the most part, a familiar one – a tortured genius, a fragile talent ravaged by fame, a vulnerable woman exploited to death by the men in her life.
Because it largely follows a chronological path through Winehouse’s life, the film is modelled on a simple ‘rise-and-fall’ structure. This made the first half, in which we see a prodigiously gifted young woman develop rapidly as a credible jazz artist, much more enjoyable and coherent than the second half, which focused on the escalation of Winehouse’s considerable health problems as her fame and the success of her second album spiralled out of control. The middle part of the film is far too in love with the irony of these opposing trajectories – the ascendency of the ‘artist’, the decline of the person.
The first half revealed a Winehouse rarely remembered, but easily understood if you listen to the lyrics of her songs – one with a caustic wit, an incredible emotional literacy, a fiery intelligence. The use of the lyrics onscreen was quite effective in this regard, even though aesthetically it strikes you as a little bit cheesy. As an autobiographical lyricist, Winehouse is a gift to the filmmakers. Her songs map closely to the story told, and Kapadia is careful to include plenty of reminders from Winehouse herself that she is only able to write from personal experience, as if to justify the often quite literal biographical readings of her lyrics presented here.
We hear much more of Winehouse’s voice in the first half of the film, as her voice-over recollections are interspersed with those of her loved ones. Her candour and articulacy enable her to tell her own story in a way which captivates more than other people’s narrations. I wish the filmmakers could have continued this throughout, but presumably there was a lack of available archive for the latter part of her life.
We also see amateur footage of her mugging to camera, being silly, enjoying herself. We see her discomfort with the ‘work’ of the contemporary pop musician, particularly the inane photoshoots and interviews. My favourite moment in the film is watching Winehouse’s face move from bemusement to amusement as a half-witted music journalist tries to compare her to Dido. Remember Dido? Another fun aspect of the film was seeing the detritus of early 2000s popular culture – Winehouse’s single was being promoted on a billboard next to So Solid Crew and B2K, whoever they are.
This version of Winehouse contrasts uneasily with the dishevelled, sickly woman familiar from paparazzi photography of her later life – used in the second half of the film in a manner that I think is ethically questionable. Indeed, the second half of the film allows images and video from the tabloids to overtake Winehouse’s own voice. I suppose you could read this as a metacommentary on Amy’s life story – the image overtaking the talent – but I found it quite tasteless, particularly the images of the body bag being carried from her Camden flat. Even four years after her death, we cannot leave her alone.
The film captures brilliantly, viscerally the horror of constant hubbub of her life after Back to Black: the bombardment by paparazzi camera lights, the noise, the frightening sense that she was never and always alone.
It is also careful to explore how Winehouse’s reckless behaviour affected her relationships with others, particularly in the reflective voiceovers. An especially heartbreaking moment came when her long-term best friend Juliette Ashby tearfully recollected Winehouse telling her that winning a Grammy was ‘boring without drugs’.
I was disappointed that the film was so insistent on making the strong, determined Winehouse into a victim, both of her own demons and of the men around her. Both her husband, Blake Fielder, and her father Mitchell, are treated contemptuously here, with the latter blamed for much of her behaviour in a tired argument about paternal abandonment and mental instability. Fielder is accused simply of using his wife as a gravy train. Since Winehouse clearly loved both men, surely it would have been more interesting to explore why, rather than simply lay parcels of blame at their doors?
Kapadia’s stated aim was to reveal through this film the ‘real’ Amy Winehouse, with little regard, seemingly for the role of his authorship in constructing a version of Winehouse. His Amy occasionally has the wit and verve I recognise from the songs, but is still overburdened by the sadder tale of physical and mental decline. One of Winehouse’s idols, Tony Bennett compares her singing voice to the greats – to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday, and says that she will be considered in that pantheon in years to come. I hope that he’s right, that the woman’s talent will eventually overtake her colourful biography as the aspect of her that is remembered . However, this film is not going to help achieve that.
Amy goes on general release in the UK on 3 July 2015.