Amy Winehouse movie: Asif Kapadia’s documentary is both ‘impressive’ & ‘heartbreaking’
In an era of disposable pop music, the songs of the late Amy Winehouse feel timeless. Her sound spans the decades: bluesy and jazzy, a little bit punk and a little bit gansta. She was an old soul belting out new school lyrics that were confessional, profane, clever, and withering. She has been compared to Billie Holiday (in more ways than one, alas) and Winehouse herself has noted Sarah Vaughn as an influence. Her phrasing could turn any note into an adventure, bending and stretching it until it made multiple emotional statements. Her voice was both propulsive and brittle with a vibrato that could pound like a jackhammer or purr like Eartha Kitt. And that’s to say nothing of her signature look, the beehive hairdo, the tattoos, and the increasingly garish makeup that would eventually hide much more than facial blemishes.
Unfortunately, prodigious talent wasn’t the only notable aspect of Amy Winehouse. If it was, she might have lived. Asif Kapadia, director of the heartbreaking documentary Amy, charts Winehouse’s descent with an almost forensic level of visual detail. It’s an impressive work of investigation, excavation, and organization. Granted access to hours of intimate, never before seen footage provided by Winehouse’s friends and coworkers, Kapadia and editor Chris King have assembled a smooth-flowing, devastatingly sad chronology.
‘Deeply felt look’
At moments Amy can feel a bit too much like a rote timeline, moving in a linear, measured fashion that’s opposite to her vocal approach. Otherwise, the film is a definitive, deeply felt look at this tragic and trouble talent, one that has the viewer practically reaching through the screen to grab Winehouse by her fragile, thin shoulders and push her away from the drug and alcohol-fueled fate that eventually befell her.
Given her iconic look, it’s hard to believe Amy Winehouse was once just another cherubic teen living in a Jewish section of London, singing “Happy Birthday” to lifelong friend Lauren Gilbert. Gilbert, along with fellow childhood bestie Juliette Ashby, represent Winehouse’s strongest support system, one that held its ground during a rise to UK fame that started with her 2003 debut album, Frank. It couldn’t, however, overcome the forces taking advantage of her success and driving her to greater depths of drug and alcohol abuse.
‘Damning archival footage’ of Amy Winehouse’s father
Indeed, the Amy Winehouse story is a tale with too many villains and not enough heroes. Her weak-willed mother, Janis, “found it difficult to stand up to” her daughter and thought Amy’s bulimia at age 15 was just a phase. Amy’s father, Mitchell, was a philanderer who walked out on the family, only to return years later as a parasite intent upon basking in the reflected glory of her daughter’s fame. (Mitchell has spoken out publicly against how he was portrayed in the film. For more, consult your local search engine.)
Kapadia’s damning archival footage of dear old dad includes his crushing response to those who think his daughter needs rehab: “it’s Amy’s responsibility to get herself well.” Later, after she finally gets the help she needs, the elder Winehouse shows up to his daughter’s post-rehab St. Lucia sanctuary with a camera crew to make sure the world can congratulate him for his role in her recovery.
‘Bad taste in lovers’
Amy Winehouse’s bad luck in parents begat her bad taste in lovers. Her ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil was a piece of work – a suicidal junkie and enabler who dragged an already troubled, addiction-prone woman into a co-dependent relationship, a doomed coupling that was the subject of her 2006 breakthrough album Back to Black. Fielder-Civil is one of Kapadia’s major “gets.” The other is Winehouse’s first manager, Nick Shymansky, who met Amy as a teenager and was genuinely concerned about her increasingly self-destructive behavior.
Kapadia charts Winehouse’s downfall in meticulous, unflinching yet never lurid, fashion. Difficult to watch footage of a strung-out Winehouse furthers the point that her death was unnecessary, tragic, and inevitable. On the other side, there’s plenty of material demonstrating the depths of Winehouse’s vocal and songwriting talent, including a melancholy reading of “Love Is a Losing Game” from 2007’s Mercury Music Awards.
Record of the Year
Often, Kapadia displays the lyrics on-screen as Winehouse sings them, effectively proving that it wasn’t just how she sang, it’s what she sang. Winehouse had an intensely personal relationship with her songs, whether they were dealing harshly with an ex-lover or chastising her own behavior. Such talent was recognized by no less an authority than Tony Bennett, who often sang Winehouse’s praises. The emotional highlight of Amy is watching her react with childlike innocence and awe when Bennett announces her as winner of the 2008 Grammy for Record of the Year.
Such victories, though, were always short-lived. Winehouse could never get any traction on her recovery and it didn’t help that the tabloids made a meal out of her for years. Her troubled relationship with Fielder-Civil; her stints in rehab; the 2007 police raid on her home; and the disastrous, heartbreaking, last-straw 2011 concert in Belgrade, were constant front-page fodder. Only a few years after a relatively healthy young Amy tells an interviewer, “I don’t think I could handle fame”, a relentless media would salivate over the prospect of her next meltdown, if not her death, which came due to alcohol intoxication in July of 2011.
Amy Winehouse success: ‘Not worth the price’
Asif Kapadia is a respectful and sensitive filmmaker who conducted dozens of interviews for Amy and, much like in his Formula 1 documentary Senna, he avoids talking heads, preferring to lay interview dialogue over archive footage, creating a sense of confessional intimacy. His portrayal of Amy’s downfall is compelling, but not as compelling as his portrayal of Amy herself.
Amy Winehouse was a troubled girl with neither the tools nor the support to avoid becoming a troubled woman. One can argue her issues made her into the artist she became. Songs like “What Is It About Men” (“My destructive side has grown a mile wide”) and her biggest hit, “Rehab” (“They tried to make me go to rehab but I said, ‘No, no, no.’”) are authentic and memorable – and not worth the price she paid to write them.
Dir.: Asif Kapadia.
Cast / Interviewees: Yasiin Bey. Mark Ronson. Tony Bennett. Pete Doherty. Blake Fielder-Civil. Mitch Winehouse. Tyler James. Salaam Remi. Janis Winehouse. Monte Lipman. Archival footage: Amy Winehouse. Russell Brand. David Letterman. Jay Leno.
Amy documentary info via the IMDb.
Amy documentary images: On The Corner Films / Universal Music.