Overview: In July 2011, 27 year old British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse was found dead from alcohol poisoning in her home in Camden, North London. Amy explores her life from early childhood up through her commercial successes, troubled relationships, and addiction to drugs and alcohol. 2015; Altitude Film Distribution; Rated R; 128 minutes.
Know You Now: Asif Kapadia (director of the critically-acclaimed documentary Senna) revisits the approach established in his earlier work, and constructs a biography without of his featured celebrity without the use of commercially constructive, talking heads. Instead, Amy is entirely constructed via a compilation of images, music, and video, both professionally-filmed and amateur made, and in forgoing the Herzog-style, authorial voice, there appears to be no particular agenda to the film’s narrative. In allowing Winehouse to reclaim her story without outsider influence, Kapadia reestablishes her lyrics as being deeply personal and concurrent to her life, while acknowledging the fact that as Amy neared the end, her personal experiences became hijacked by millions of fans, the paparazzi, and general critical reception, making a stage show out of her image. In a particularly shocking scene in the film, a paparazzi accidentally knocks Amy down during an already traumatic period in her life, before commanding her to, “Cheer up!” Still, Kapadia doesn’t shy away from showing the mistakes made by the singer, making sure that the viewer understands her own complicity in the public downfall that finally occurred. Throughout Kapadia’s film, Winehouse is constantly seen looking directly at the camera otherwise invading her private space, and challenging us to re-evaluate what we think we see.
Some Unholy War: There is a subtle evolution throughout the film, wherein perspective is passed from Amy’s friends, to her, and then back again, before being taken away altogether. The footage chosen by Kapadia is increasingly comprised of paparazzi shots, with even her post-rehab escape to Saint Lucia having been entirely captured by a predatory film crew; but when her father scolds her for making a rude remark to them, she candidly replies that, “They got what they wanted.” Kapadia has admitted in interviews that before taking on the project he had never seen Amy play live, and hadn’t even listened to her music that much, yet the lyrics to her songs appear on screen at various points, serving as a map by which to guide the viewer through Winehouse’s life. While there is plenty to learn from what was documented in tabloid journalism, this new film corrects that projected image previously established, in realizing that her real, personal experience is documented first-hand in all of her songs. In the line “I ain’t got the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine,” from her international hit ‘Rehab,’ ‘Winehouse ambiguously refers to multiple interventions rendered unsuccessful via her father’s placation of her addictive habits.
Playing a Losing Game: Despite when you may have first discovered the tragedy of Winehouse, her story has been constantly warped and re-told through insensitive talk-show jokes, gossip magazines, even on BBC News. There is little real information out there, however, and despite her bold personality, she did little to defend herself near the end, and so such discussions were largely misinformed. With Amy, Kapadia finally lifts the veneer of the media’s manipulations, showing us the clever, talented, and deeply funny girl that was lost to abuse, mental illness, and addiction. While the film could be taken as an indictment of the way the media mistreats celebrities, or how mass marketing can interfere with artistic talent, or how we may be complicit in both, Kapadia has a much more straightforward goal in mind. In Amy, Kapadia simply wanted to showcase Amy as an icon, as an artist, and as a person, underneath all of her complications.
Overall: Amy Winehouse was a brutally honest, captivating woman, who was missed even during her lifetime, and will be missed even more so now with the theatrical release of Amy.
Featured Image: Altitude Film Distribution