Watching Asif Kapadia’s Amy is like witnessing a trainwreck from inside the locomotive. As Kapadia displayed in the remarkable Senna, archival footage is a powerful tool in the right hands. Here, Kapadia has seemingly unlimited access to footage of Amy Winehouse, gathered from homemade videos, TV show broadcasts, interviews, even paparazzi recordings. He uses this footage, both private and public, to chronicle Amy’s precipitous rise and fall. If the life and death of Amy Winehouse is little more than a tabloid footnote in your memory, Amy will correct that shallow reading, reframing her short life as one of artistic worth and personal tragedy.
Amy starts in the late 1990s when Amy Winehouse is just a 14-year-old British girl with a talented voice. Soon enough she lands a record contract and a small following of fans who appreciate her smoky jazz singer voice. Her debut album, Frank, is a hit in 2003 and draws even more attention to her unique brand of jazz pop. By this point, Amy’s predilection for substance abuse and bulimia has only reinforced itself. The pressures are mounting and her psyche starts to show wear and tear. When her 2006 album Back to Black drops and she becomes a massive superstar, winning the Grammy for Record of the Year, Amy’s doom is already spelled out. In retrospect, we should have expected her meteoric rise and premature death. However, its inevitability doesn’t stop it from being emotionally devastating.
Kapadia is affectionate towards Amy—she’s no more than a fun-loving girl with some problems when the film starts. But he doesn’t sugarcoat his depiction of her many flaws or her psychological inability to deal with the outcomes of her artistic success. We see Amy share tender moments with her friends in her London flat or explore her music in the studio or in a small pub before she was famous. But we also see her hiding from paparazzi, showing up black-out-drunk on stage in Serbia, or gleefully posing for her husband while snorting crack cocaine and looking like a 45-year-old junkie. Amy argues that Winehouse was a great artist—a young woman with a voice far more mature than her years—but that her death was also an avoidable outcome of bad choices. Many of the choices were her own. However, many were not choices at all but instead the inevitable outcomes of psychological predispositions, absentee parenting, manipulative personal relationships, and terrible romantic choices.
In some ways, this documentary works as a horror film, showing the rapid disintegration of a human being under extreme pressure—from fans, producers, her record company, her promoter, paparazzi, her criminal husband, her friends, her family, and the many demons that haunted her in her youth and only grew stronger the older and more famous she got. In other ways, Amy plays as convincing biographical criticism, exploring the personal aspects of her lyrics, linking her music and her life by cutting from footage of a formative personal experience to a performance of her singing about the experience. Kapadia never goes so far as to argue that Amy’s artistry was the result of her tortured personal life—that she would have never been a good artist if she weren’t so self-destructive—but he also makes it clear that music was a way for her to exorcise her demons.
The manner in which Kapadia depicts Amy’s decline also matters greatly to the film’s effectiveness. By using only archival footage and restricting interviews to voiceover, Kapadia allows us to witness Amy’s downfall in real time with few authorial intrusions. As well, the dazzlingly personal nature of the footage he’s allowed access to heightens the film’s intimacy and makes Amy into something richer than a mere behind-the-music special.
There’s something suitably tragic about the artist best known for singing about not going to rehab dying from the toll substance abuse took on her body. The public glorified her emotional nakedness and then mocked her when she couldn’t keep that emotional turmoil in check. By showcasing Amy Winehouse’s personal and professional life in such intimate detail, Asif Kapadia’s Amy rescues Winehouse from the realm of legendary tragedy and returns her to real life dimensions. It strips back the layers of celebrity artifice and lets us see the tortured individual behind the music. The film proves a reminder that behind every seemingly-simple case of celebrity breakdown and self-destruction is a human being losing a rigged battle with life.
8 out of 10
Amy (2015, UK)
Directed by Asif Kapadia.