Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015)
If you want a feel-good movie, then this ain’t it. But for an insight into a brilliant artist who battled addiction, bulimia, and the perils of fame, documentaries don’t get much better than Asif Kapadia’s Amy.Kapadia presents Amy Winehouse’s story through archival footage, audio interviews, photos, and her music. While you might not expect this to be enough to gauge a full picture of Amy’s life, it works incredibly well, with the audience feeling like a fly on the wall even when all the footage used is solely from the archives. Kapadia’s decision to use only audio of his interviews with Amy’s family and friends is a smart one – pictures of Amy tell a much richer story than images of talking heads. While docos often make me crave a dramatic feature film that can portray those pivotal scenes that are not caught on tape, this one feels like enough, though it’s hard to say whether that’s the result of the sympathy this film elicits regarding her life being constantly on show.
Amy’s battle with drug addiction is of course a key concern of Kapadia’s film, but her artistic capabilities are not overshadowed. Viewers who may have previously decried her success will hopefully be forced to acknowledge that her talent was undeniable. Not only did she have a formidable and unique voice, she resurrected the jazz genre in the twenty-first century, bringing it back into the mainstream, and wrote profoundly moving lyrics that spoke to her own experiences. Kapadia’s film demonstrates that Amy’s music was her primary focus and that artistry and fame can conflict. After the enormous success of her album Back to Black she was forced to keep performing the same songs, even when their lyrics no longer resonated with her.
While Amy elicits sympathy for Winehouse herself, it doesn’t hold back in painting a fair few villains out of those around her. Though Amy’s parents did grant Kapadia access to her archival footage and gave their blessing for friends and family to be interviewed, it’s no wonder that they have since distanced themselves from the film. They are made out to be a hopeless pair who didn’t take their daughter’s problems seriously. Her father, Mitch, in particular, is presented as a man more concerned with capitalising on his daughter’s success than trying to address her ill health. The line in her biggest hit ‘Rehab‘ “and my Daddy thinks I’m fine” will forever haunt me after seeing this film. Her mother, on the other hand, is barely seen or heard of throughout the film (despite being present in her life) and her own admission that both she and Mitch brushed off Amy’s allusions to an eating disorder paints her as an ambivalent parent.
Worse though than her parents, is Amy’s ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil. It’s astonishing that he agreed to be interviewed, and you could say it’s to his credit that he doesn’t try to deflect any of the blame from himself. His relationship with Amy is portrayed as passionate, turbulent, and ultimately damaging. It was Blake who introduced Amy to the drug scene, sending her on a downward spiral. Probably the most heart-breaking thing in the entire film is seeing how besotted they were with each other – friends said she would die for him, and in a way she did. The film serves to remind viewers, however, that Amy did not die from a drug overdose, and was in fact clean at the time of her death (when Blake was no longer in her life). Instead she died from alcohol poisoning due to a weak and fragile body.
It is the paparazzi, however, who really take the cake. Maybe it’s because they’re one big unidentifiable mass that makes them the easiest to abhor, but if there’s ever been a time where you’ve felt like the paparazzi deserve to die, it’s here. One even has the gall to tell Amy to “cheer up” and the blood boils. The intense scrutiny that she faced thanks to these bastards was clearly a massive contributor to her downfall. Clips of comedians using her as an easy punchline also hit home. No one deserves to be mocked for being mentally ill, no matter how famous. And yet we do it time and time again.
The complete intrusion into Amy Winehouse’s privacy by the media will likely fire up viewers’ emotions, especially when they see that she was just as, if not more, vulnerable than anyone else. Amy is a thoroughly insightful film in this respect, but the argument has been raised that our consumption of it may just be feeding the fire. This is an unsettling thought, however Kapadia’s film seems to respect the memory of its subject, albeit treating her as a tragic figure. I for one have a newfound respect for Amy, and a whole lot of love for this exceptional portrayal of a life cut way too short.