by Matt Levine
Superstardom is an affliction known only to the select few: you can’t experience all that fame and glory without undergoing at least a little damage to your psyche. Or so the story has been told to us common folk countless times; cinematic iterations range from A Star is Born to A Face in the Crowd to the Radiohead documentary Meeting People is Easy, among many others. Now, you can add Amy to the list of predictable but devastating tales of talented artists who burned bright and much too briefly: this documentary on the rise and fall of Amy Winehouse, helmed by Senna director Asif Kapadia, charts a story that is well-known in the broader details but heartbreaking in its intimate, lived-in specifics. By the end of the film, you’ll be convinced that Winehouse was the most brilliant artist who ever had to struggle to demonstrate her greatness—a portrayal of legendary artistry common to commemorative docs like this one, though in this case the hagiography seems mostly warranted and empathetic.
Director: Asif Kapadia
Producer: James Gay-Rees
Editor: Chris King
Original Music: Antonio Pinto
Cast: Amy Winehouse, Yasiin Bey, Mark Ronson, Pete Doherty, Mitch Winehouse, Tony Bennett, Blake Fielder-Civil, Tyler James, Salaam Remi, Monte Lipman, Janis Winehouse
Premiere: May 16, 2015 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: July 3, 2015
US Distributor: A24
Kapadia draws from hundreds of hours of archival footage—not only TV interviews and recording sessions, but unvarnished video shot on cell phones of Amy hanging out with friends and collaborators—to evoke this rise-and-fall storyline. Indeed, some of the low-key, fly-on-the-wall scenes early in the film—a 16-year-old Amy blowing everyone away with “Happy Birthday” at a party, or one of her first jazz club performances, or smiling half-asleep from the backseat of a car—are the most affecting. This is footage we’ve never seen before, of Amy as the wondrous, real-life person with unlimited potential, and our knowledge of the fate she’ll meet turns these charming first impressions bittersweet. At a later point in the movie, this Amy that we've come to know and love will be overshadowed (at least in the public eye) by a different persona.
As her fans surely know, Winehouse’s rise to fame was quick and meteoric. At less than twenty years old, she was discovered by the recording industry and signed to Island Records; her debut album Frank, released in 2003, eventually reached platinum and brought Winehouse a tidal wave of awards and acclaim. Three years later, Back to Black brought Winehouse even greater levels of popularity (it was the number one album in the UK in 2007), but this was also the period in which her alcoholism, various drug addictions, and quite apparent health issues (including bulimia, a lifetime ailment) entered the public eye, often being derided by the entertainment media. The next several years consisted of studio-mandated tours—which became erratic and unpredictable, with Winehouse sometimes unable to perform—and off-and-on attempts to complete her next project (Amy suggests these delays were partially because the album Winehouse wanted to make, a collaboration with Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson, was not supported by her label). We all know how it ends: black vehicles surrounding her Camden apartment, paparazzi snapping away outside, her fans teary-eyed and uncomprehending as news of her death from alcohol poisoning spread.
Although it’s somewhat ironic that director Kapadia bemoans Winehouse’s ubiquitous public presence (something it seems she never wanted) yet relies on the media snippets that made her so inescapable, there’s no denying the power of the vast footage that comprises the film. The intimate home movies don’t always take on a rosy tone: there are unsettling phone messages left in the middle of the night, the words slurred almost beyond comprehension, and heartening moments when Winehouse resolutely discusses the shape she would like her next projects to take. TV appearances and recording sessions become a poignant study in decrypting an enigmatic persona: her disdain for entertainment journalists and boredom with the business disguised by the decorum of a mass-marketed brand, the rolls of the eyes and evasive answers to mindless questions. We always get the sense that Amy would rather be belting out a jazz tune in a smoky bar than appearing onscreen.
The only original footage that appears in Amy consists of audio interviews with Winehouse’s friends and collaborators; Kapadia decides not to show these interviews visually, a unique and effective choice that avoids the monotonous nature of talking-heads monologues. It’s as though the disembodied voices of those who loved (or exploited) Amy take part in some cosmic judgment in the afterlife. Her childhood friends discuss her true, graceful personality (the one that was hidden, at least at the end, from the public); her mother explains how differently Amy acted after her father, Mitch, left the house when she was only nine; her catastrophic, drug-addicted boyfriend (then husband) Blake Fielder-Civil rasps on about their tempestuous love and his self-perceived inferiority. Some of the most moving moments in the film consist of these aural interviews, as when one of Amy’s longtime friends says that after her televised Grammy win in 2008, Amy confided in her, “This is so boring without drugs.”
Kapadia makes sure that Winehouse’s fans are satisfied with the music on display—megahits like “Rehab” and “Love Is a Losing Game” are sublimely performed, along with deeper cuts like “Stronger Than Me” and “Valerie,” whose lyrics are splayed across the screen as though they provide the key to unlocking some part of Winehouse’s life. In what might be the most moving scene in the film, Winehouse records a duet with Tony Bennett—one of her idols—in a quiet studio, and although she repeatedly fumbles her recording and seems under the influence of something (maybe just nerves), she regroups and professes her love for Bennett and lays down a marvelous, seductive performance. These few minutes of screen time seem to encapsulate Winehouse’s combustible persona: the insecurity and penchant for self-destruction on one hand, the sweetness, intelligence, and limitless potential on the other.
As for any attempts to “explain” what happened to Amy Winehouse, Kapadia mostly realizes this is a futile task: how can a filmmaker decode someone’s life in the span of two hours? Kapadia generally lays out the evidence and asks us merely to empathize, although two men—Amy’s father Mitch and her lover Blake Fielder-Civil—come off as especially destructive and selfish. Kapadia can’t resist the urge to psychoanalyze, as the conspicuousness of her father—his absence early in life and his abrupt reappearance after she started accumulating money and fame—becomes a somewhat formative influence, pointing towards Amy’s need for acceptance especially from the men in her life. But Amy also recognizes that the singer had a capacity for self-destruction from the start, a sense that her music was an outlet for her loneliness and doubt—feelings that must have only escalated (somewhat paradoxically) throughout her career. In the perfect storm of mega-stardom, Amy seems to suggest, innate feelings of insecurity and futility might simmer until they boil over—a sad contradiction only known to the rarest echelon of celebrities.
“A Heart-Breaking Journey, A Ground-Breaking Motion Picture,” reads Amy’s tagline. I strongly agree with the former, though the latter seems like promotional hyperbole: Kapadia is subtle and wise throughout, but he never strays too far from the biography-doc template. Winehouse’s story, though—as we know by now, at least if you’re a fan (which I unabashedly am)—is indeed a heartbreaking journey, the story of an artist and a seemingly wonderful human being who, to use a tired cliché, flew too close to the sun. Without disrespecting Kapadia’s direction, this is an innately powerful story no matter how it's told, only half of which we know from the tabloids and the news reports. Kapadia’s smartest decision, in fact, lies in suppressing his own voice and respecting Winehouse as a person, attempting only to understand and try to relate to an experience we couldn’t possibly comprehend. In doing so, the full complexity and artistry of Amy Winehouse becomes undeniable, a dark power that has been there in her lyrics all along. “I tread a troubled track,” Winehouse once sang. “My odds are stacked / I’ll go back to black.”