Directed by: Asif Kapadia
In Amy, the tumultuous life and untimely death of the singer Amy Winehouse is chronicled in an onslaught of images both high and low-res. Though she was an old soul, early in life she descended into a fatal addiction to drugs and alcohol, all during the rise of the smartphone. Director Asif Kapadia uses the plethora of video and still images of Winehouse’s decline to show a woman surrounded by sharks.
Many of those sharks– the paparazzi, her boyfriend-turned-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, a camera crew hired by her father Mitch Winehouse– are the ones recording the footage Kapadia uses, which makes watching the end product a kind of double-edged sword. Would such an intimate, affecting portrait be possible without these monsters? A particularly disturbing passage comes when Winehouse goes to rehab with Fielder, something that a doctor interviewed for the documentary says never should have happened. Fielder films her as a friend does her hair, asking her to sing an updated version of her hit single “Rehab.” He wants to hear her say “Yes, yes, yes,” to admit defeat in front of the camera and reverse the defiant “No, no no” of the song’s chorus.
Amy is structured to show how the privileges afforded by Winehouse’s success not only weren’t enough to save her, but they skewed the priorities of those who may have been able to do more for her. Though Kapadia is interested in her distinct, deeply felt jazz croon, he’s more focused on the whirlpool of torment slowly and mercilessly engulfing her. Fielder-Civil comes off as a sinister enabler who left her and then came running back after her album Back to Black took the world by storm.
The intimacy of Amy is powerful but troubling; should we have access to skeletal selfies Winehouse took in the midst of her addiction? Is this a cautionary tale or does it succumb to the same feeding frenzy that pushed Winehouse further away from recovery? These questions are complicated by Kapadia’s visual design. He could have easily shown close-up, professional footage of some of her more tormented, drug-fueled on-stage performances, but he goes into the crowd. Footage of a troubling concert where she skulks around the stage without performing, seemingly unsure of where she is, is edited to show her both up close and from the perspective of the grainy cell-phone video of a booing fan.
By talking with Winehouse’s friends, family and production crew, Kapadia attempts to fill in the spaces between them and the disappointed fans and insidious, eager onlookers who followed Winehouse’s downfall through the press. Kapadia only uses the audio of the interviews, further emphasizing just how much footage is available of his subject. Their answers aren’t satisfying, especially those from her father and her mother, who give frustratingly opaque “Well, what were we supposed to do?”-type answers to questions about their daughter’s addiction and eating disorder. The dissatisfaction seems to be the point, though; instead of answers, there are a lot of excuses.
The first half of Amy focuses more heavily on her unexpected rise to prominence in the British music scene, but the musical performances become more heart-wrenching to watch as the movie reaches its inevitable finale. However, Amy‘s most powerful musical moment shows her in complete command of her craft, singing the title track from Back to Black as Kapadia cuts between her singing acapella and the finished version of the song.
Tony Bennett, one of Winehouse’s idols who sang a duet with her shortly before her death in July 2011, says that she should be ranked among great jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald. As I write this review, I’m listening to Back to Black wishing she could have made records this sultry and world-weary for years to come. Alas, the horrible cost of her music and talent is all-too-clear here; she vanished in an overwhelming flurry of camera flashes from people who just couldn’t leave her troubled soul alone. Great as the record is, it can never be worth her life.