amy - documentary - review

Following in the footsteps of Senna (2010), Asif Kapadia directs another documentary on a controversial persona. Amy is his latest project. Detailing the rise and fall of Jazz musician Amy Winehouse, who died on July 23rd 2011 due to alcohol poisoning. Amy neatly illustrates in its over two-hour running time a clearer understanding of this talented musician.

Perhaps not to many, Winehouse made an impression with her first album Frank (2003), displaying roots in jazz and conveying her authenticity. Responding to her emotional breakup with Blake Fielder (a shady figure believed to have introduced her to hard drugs), came the album Back To Black (2006), shifting her sounds from jazz to ’50 and ’60s pop groups. This was vastly more popular and accessible to non-jazz ears. Back To Black also molded a troubled singer struggling to get clean, complete with her famous beehive and heavy eyeliner.

In true Winehouse spirit, as if answering back to the media, the song Rehab was ironically about her relationship with her Dad (Lindsey), who by the way “thinks she’s fine”. But Kapadia articulates something else; the effect Winehouse’s parents’ divorce had on her. Lindsey’s absence from her life triggered depression and bulimia in her teenage years, which re-surfaced later. Although in Winehouse’s eyes, the ground he walked on was cherished. It is interesting to note that Lindsey, whether to blame or not, has targeted this film as making him out to be the bad guy, even though it’s been suggested he is yet to even see the film.

amy - review

Regardless of being a Winehouse fan or not, this is eye opening and nuanced. If anything, this documentary is better for a non-fan to see. It shakes up a lot of misconceptions by showing images and footage of the Winehouse mainstream media never bothered with. Hearing anecdotes from her fellow musicians and friends help challenge preconceptions. This hypocrisy that plagued her image is cleverly articulated; interviews and performances on the many late-night shows Winehouse was on over the years, from her pre-drug interviews, to the post-drug interviews, where Winehouse ended up being the punch line in many opening monologues.

Depending on where you fit in this equation, Kapadia dwells on the guilt factor – especially if it’s something the viewer may have once laughed at. You kind of wonder though, perhaps if this documentary came out during these darker moments, maybe it would have helped understand what Winehouse was going through, or even stopped this nastiness. But now, years have passed, and to bring out this documentary near the anniversary of her death seems unfortunately convenient for the many naysayers.

Similar to Senna, Kapadia uses real footage in a chronological way, from childhood to the death itself. There are no distractions in Amy; it is a seamless, well-balanced documentary that does give you a sense of Winehouse from the start to the very end. Having this type of knowledge and intimacy makes it all that bit more tragic, and it does feel like Kapadia delights in stressing this (rightfully so). It also has that unattainable feeling you get with figures like Winehouse who have died young; their lives are so reckless and passionate for their art that they inevitably become figures of a type of martyrdom. It is almost impossible to see the positive elements to that person’s life. Unfortunately, this cannot be helped. Amy does, however, end with a collection of her life in photographs. Besides the fact that it is hard to find positivity at this moment in time, you do get a sense of why Winehouse was such an influential and humble force of nature.

Kapadia has captured his subject naturally, without all the clichés or stolid talking heads; he makes you rediscover Winehouse as a singer and, perhaps most importantly, as a person.