A few years back, I had never heard of Amy Winehouse before. Yet I distinctly remember the day of her death, as if I had been a fan my whole life. Although I didn’t feel the sadness or importance of her passing at the time, I can honestly say that I now understand completely the devastation around the world that came with that tragic day.
This year, from the award winning team behind last year’s hit documentary Senna, comes the critically acclaimed documentary detailing the life of Amy Winehouse told through her eyes. Directed by Asif Kapadia, Amy is not a typical bio-documentary; instead of the typical mirage of interview footage with various family members, friends, and record producers, the focus is on Winehouse herself. A massive amount of research went into finding archive footage, homemade videos, unseen concert footage, and even recordings of previously unheard/unreleased tracks. In this way, Kapadia has produced a unique experience in that we get an unparalleled glimpse into the raw emotions and hardships of Winehouse’s life.
The documentary is an emotional rollercoaster of joy and grief, an exploration of pop-culture, fame, and drug abuse. One might even argue that the media and her rise to fame killed her. As tragic a point of view as that is, Winehouse is shown saying she does not want to be famous many times, almost too many. For her, obscurity would keep her sane, as she would go crazy from fame. Consumers didn’t listen, and the result may have been her death.
In addition to the powerful story of media frenzy surrounding her rise to fame, and the emotional story of her romantic relationships, there is the drug and alcohol narrative. In some ways, one could say this documentary is an anti-drug film. Alcohol and drug abuse played a monumental part in Winehouse’s life, and this is not lightly skimmed over by Kapadia. A juvenile detention centre in Thailand has recently taken to showing Amy as an anti-drug film to inmates in the hopes that it might dissuade them from a life of addiction (The Guardian, 2015).
Kapadia’s film, which became the second-biggest documentary ever in UK cinemas this past summer, has been critically acclaimed around the world after its screening at the prestigious 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Surprisingly, negative comments from Amy Winehouse’s father Mitch Winehouse came forth after the release. There was tension between him and the crew during production due to disputes over his negative portrayal in the film. According to the director, who was dedicated to a truthful telling of the jazz legend’s life, nobody did anything about Amy’s addictions and problems which ultimately resulted in her untimely death.
Asif Kapadia’s Amy is unique in the documentary genre for its intimate and unusual style of editing. No interview footage is ever shown; interviews are instead heard as background to home video shot either by Winehouse or her friends and family. In terms of music, this documentary is almost a musical. Through the clever placement of songs (previously released, and new), a deeper understanding of the story behind each song is possible, and therefore a must deeper and emotional connection to the subject is established. By the end of the roughly two-hour film, I cannot help feel deeply moved and saddened by this masterpiece of filmmaking and music. This is the story of an incredibly talented woman who was vulnerable and humble. Her talent gave her the attention she never desired, and as a result of the fame and ensuing media frenzy she took to alcohol and drugs (with heavy influence from romantic partners).
As a recent fan of Amy Winehouse, this film has shed light on her life and her incredible talent for me that I had no knowledge of, and gave me a newfound reverence for her and her music. Asif Kapadia has created a film and music story that is passionate, intimate, and honest. It is a beautiful and heartbreaking tribute to the great Amy Winehouse.
Director: Asif Kapadia
Starring: Amy Winehouse, Yasiin Bey, Mark Ronson, Tony Bennett, Mitch Winehouse
Runtime: 128 minutes
Release Date: July 3, 2015
MPAA Rating: R (for language and drug material)
My rating: 4.5/5 stars