Asif Kapadia returns to the playbook he used for 2012’s Senna with this emotive documentary about an extraordinary talent snuffed out too young. This time the subject is the ferociously talented jazz singer and British tabloid mainstay Amy Winehouse, who died at 27 as a result of alcohol poisoning. Taglined ‘the girl behind the name’, its themes are powerfully and unsubtly delivered: that her death was foreseen and entirely avoidable; and that her talent was staggering. As a film it’s a moving and conflicted piece of work that ultimately celebrates the singer’s gifts, while raising (and leaving unresolved) key questions about her vulnerability in the face of press intrusion and the poor judgement of those around her.
The film harnesses the enduring power of the camera phone to weave together a treasure trove of intimate, disarming moments of Winehouse’s early days as a North London teenager. Early gigs and record label meetings show Amy as an unpolished gem with a voice (and a command of jazz) that is quite clearly already the real deal. Beyond Amy, the film’s heroes are identified – her first manager, her childhood friends – and every film needs a villain. This is where Amy’s eventual husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, and her father, Mitch Winehouse, come in.
Amy’s rise to prominence is related by the voices of those who knew her, punctuated by powerful vocal performances, with her starkly confessional lyrics displayed on screen. They lament the weaknesses and failings of the men in her life; her father began an affair soon after Amy was born, and carried on for eight years before walking out on the family. He insists that Amy “got over it” pretty quickly but her song lyrics suggest otherwise, as do her pre-fame friends.
Mitch Winehouse threatened legal action due to his portrayal in the film: at points he insists she doesn’t need rehab, despite events beginning to spiral out of control. He brings his own camera crew to what should be a private period of recovery in St Lucia, and there’s the constant implied suggestion that her fame, and what it can do for him personally, is more important to him than her health. Perhaps crucially, he says that getting clean is ‘Amy’s responsibility’. This is a strange argument to make when it was so apparent that she wasn’t able to do it herself. A label exec from Island similarly passes the buck – when Amy wants to switch management from her caring childhood friend to her hands-off tour promoter, he admits it would be bad for her – but doesn’t bother to get involved.
The other key villain is Blake Fielder-Civil, the love interest that introduced Amy to hard drugs before being sent to prison for perjury. He has an inhuman death rattle of a voice and is almost cartoonish in his narcissistic disregard for anything except his own satisfaction. Their horrible romance plays out in front of a constant staccato of camera shutters, paparazzi stalking and cajoling Amy as her health unravels in front of us. Much as with Senna, where it seemed so obvious that he shouldn’t get into the car in San Marino, it is both baffling and intensely sad that events were allowed to play out as they did, when they were documented by the gutter press in such excruciating detail.
A month before her death, Amy Winehouse was contractually obliged to perform a huge gig in Belgrade, and the sight of her onstage, too drunk to even attempt to perform, is shocking now. At the time, comedians were happy to make fun of her; Frankie Boyle, Graham Norton and Jay Leno are singled out for criticism. Their jokes do seem monstrous when intercut with footage of a visibly suffering bulimic addict, but this section is slightly crass from Kapadia. Firstly it’s arbitrary – why is Graham Norton named and shamed while the celebrity editors of the tabloids are not? – and secondly, comedians always have and always will make jokes in bad taste. But it still makes for uncomfortable viewing. My personal lowlight of Kapadia’s depressing body of evidence is Amy’s trip to professional sleazemeister Terry Richardson, to be stripped, poked with glass and photographed for our titillation, her grinning moron of a husband along for the ride.
However, there are lovely moments in the film. Amy’s facial reaction to a brave journalist who frames a question about her album with reference to Dido is solid gold. My highlight was her reaction when her idol, Tony Bennett, opens the Grammy envelope and reads out her name, and the most gloriously gobby of singers is, for once, lost for words. These moments are always tinged with sadness as we know how the movie ends, but Kapadia is a great storyteller and Amy’s story remains compelling throughout.
There are two main problems with the film, neither of which should deter you from seeing it. Firstly, Kapadia tends to conduct radio-style interviews (i.e. no camera, which elicits more honest responses) and stitch together audio to narrate the film. It’s effective, but it does feel a bit clean and a bit convenient. The director’s heroes and villains are clear, but without any two-way conversations, it’s hard to know how much each side’s versions of events were interrogated. The friends get to talk about how everything they did was in Amy’s best interests, and those excerpts of her father’s account that make it to the screen are fairly damning. That may well be exactly how events played out, but it’s a pretty serious charge to lay at Mitch Winehouse’s door: that his hunger for fame and money led, in part, to his own daughter’s death. A journalist would have to put that directly to their subject and print their reaction. Kapadia doesn’t have to offer such courtesy in his film.
The second objection is that the film comes down hard, rightly, on the media’s prurient interest in watching this girl’s life collapse. The problem is that at times, away from the stunning music, I’m not sure how different we are in watching this film – for example, it includes distressing footage taken outside Amy’s funeral, which brought many in the audience to tears. Q: where did that footage come from? A: journalists parked up the road with a zoom lens, intruding on private grief. And now we’re buying tickets to watch it in the cinema.
Amy is currently showing at cinemas nationwide. For more information visit the website.