Director Asif Kapadia (Senna), has, in many ways crafted this documentary in the form of a classical tragedy, as the ending allows. This is no random montage, though that it could be mistaken for one is ultimately the source of its power. By looking and feeling like a home video, charting her life from teenager to superstar, the narrative of Amy gives the illusion of unravelling like life; random moments strung together and ordered by little more than the passage of time. Key turning points of her life and career are peppered within more innocuous periods. Boredom, fun, loneliness. Day-to-day living, playing pool. Unlike the well-worn model of the White-Male-Genius biopic, this film has stakes because not everything is about moving the story along. Time and space is given to appreciating the music and personality of Amy Winehouse, confident that she is nothing if not compelling.
Amy Winehouse is very funny. In her best moments, when she is cogent and sober, she’s wickedly smart and charming. Her impersonation of a Latino cleaner is joyful to behold and her eye-rolling dismissal of the singer, Dido, hilarious. You root for Amy and that’s what’s so dangerous. You remember how watchable she once was, what with her towering hair, big eyes and sloping jaw, features so distinctive that caricaturists around the world, from Leicester Square to Central Park, refuse to let her go.
Amy is above all a great work of synthesis. Kapadia utilises songs, photos, home videos, reality TV footage and more. He pulls together his narrative by splicing audio from interviews, whether pre-existing or conducted by his team, over the top of this collage. In doing so Kapadia has fashioned a comprehensive morality tale, an Icarus for modern times. We are shown her undeniable talent and potential. We are presented with the moment when disaster could have been averted. If she had only gone to rehab then, at that particular time, it might have turned out differently. Potential saviours are identified- her first manager, her childhood friends- all of whom fail in their efforts to save her. That’s the paradoxical heart of tragedy: an inevitable fate that could have all been avoided.
As the years go by, increasing prominence is given to the villains of the Amy Winehouse story. It’s well known that Mitch Winehouse, Amy’s father, is disgruntled by his portrayal in the film. Undeniably, he doesn’t come out well and, to a degree, his dismay is understandable. He inspired Amy to become a musician in the first place and there’s little-to-no room given to such paternal positives. Nevertheless, Mitch did tell her not go to rehab. He did press her to do shows she was not fit to play. He did try and scrape out a personal celebrity on the back of her talent and achievement. Mistakes were made and to see them laid bare on screen must be harrowing (though they are enshrined within her lyrics also). Mitch’s resentment derives from how the particular selection of material emphasises his faults. No doubt the sources could be re-jigged and refashioned to portray him in a more positive light, but if there’s one thing that stands out regarding Mitch Winehouse, it’s that he’s oblivious to how he is perceived by others, including, most devastatingly, by his own doting daughter.
Then there is Blake Fielder-Civil, the singer’s ex-husband, a man so dislikeable as to seem a pantomime villain. From the get-go it’s clear that he’s bad news and his interview excerpts make for repulsive listening. Throughout the documentary, he’s Amy’s personal Satan, mocking her futile attempts to break free from her addictions, enabling each damaging relapse. No amount of spin can save his image.
There are less visible evils that pervade the story, such as the record companies and promoters who constantly exert pressure on the Winehouse moneymaking machine. Those faceless corporates who refused to place her health and wellbeing above everything else, their interest forever fraught with contractual obligations and desire to make cash. Worst of all is the malicious treatment of Winehouse at the hands of the gutter press. Their daily bombardment is shocking to witness. The way in which she is stalked by the paparazzi makes the fans from A Hard Day’s Night look positively casual. Reporters clamber over each other to shove a question in her face, photographers know no boundaries. Yet this is where a great deal of the footage for the documentary comes from, at least towards the latter part of her life. The audience is thus complicit. The existence of such footage is a symptom of the perverse British obsession with rumour and celebrity. Our culture is sick with this ailment, DMO (Daily Mail Online), and this insatiable need for gossip most definitely contributed to the decline of Amy Winehouse.
Even in the midst of watching the film, one longs for the young Amy, the Amy of old. Back when she laughed the loudest, and was prone to spots, and had teeth that looked like a graveyard following an earthquake. But this is something of a storytelling trick. Amy Winehouse was always a troubled individual, suffering from bulimia and depression at a startlingly young age. By revealing these problems gradually, or downplaying their hold upon her adolescence, the arc of her rise and fall is duly fashioned by Kapadia. Of course, her life-sapping drug and alcohol addictions were the ultimate causes of her demise back in 2011, but this nostalgia for simpler, happy days feels like an emotional glitch. Really, her oscillation could happen within the blink of an eye.
Occasionally, the documentary is guilty of highlighting one portent too many, for lingering on a sad still of Amy for a few seconds too long. There’s only so much foreshadowing we as an audience can take. Hindsight can add poignancy to nearly anything and the director overstretches in his bid to find warning signs. However, one sin that Kapadia never commits is the glorification of Amy’s internal demons, the kind of romanticising that has been all too common with the post-death treatment of Kurt Cobain. Instead, these problems are simply portrayed as the ever-present detriments from which her love of music offered some release.
The film’s tagline, ‘The Girl Behind The Name’, is misleading – there never was a girl behind the name. Amy Winehouse was Amy Winehouse. She could not get away from herself and what’s more she never wanted to. She placed authenticity above all else. In the early days of her career, when her stardom was less self-consuming, Amy Winehouse was heralded for this very quality. What you see is what you get. No airs. Common. In one interview, she recalls a producer who used “fake” strings and horns on one of her early singles. She quickly declares her hatred for him and his artifice. Her voice quivers with hurt before she snaps out of it, apologising to a Dutch interviewer who is frankly baffled by her candid admission. This need to be the undiluted real-deal affected other parts of her life too. She could not stand the anti-depressants that dulled her personality. When the film stops and the silence descends, you leave the cinema wishing that she had been able to play a role, to separate herself from her name, if only to have some respite from being Amy Winehouse.