Asif Kapada’s riveting documentary about Amy Winehouse tells a story we all know, but watching it, it’s hard not to feel part of the circus that contributed to her demise, says Brian Finnegan.
An increasingly unshakable feeling creeps up on you watching Amy, Asif Kapada’s documentary about the dizzy rise and tragic fall of Amy Winehouse, whose heart literally stopped beating on Saturday July 23, 2011, when she was just 27 years old. Even though they took part, the singer’s parents, and in particular her father, have disassociated themselves from Kapada’s film, and it’s not hard to see why. As Amy’s archetypal story unfolds, almost everyone surrounding her becomes culpable in her demise, and by proxy as a viewer, it’s hard not to feel in some way culpable too, or at least part of a relentless, grotesque circus that’s still doing the rounds.
Kapada is most famous for Senna, his 2010 documentary about the maverick Brazillian Formula 1 racer, Ayrton Senna, who tragically died at the age of 26 after winning the championship three times. In that film Kapada eschewed the ‘talking heads’ structure of other such documentaries, curating a vast array of material, from home movies to interviews cut from final broadcasts, to backroom videos of drivers’ briefings, to on-car camera footage, to tell Senna’s story in a way that straddled a fine line between intimate and epic.
He straddles the same line with Amy. All interviews for the film were conducted in a darkened room without cameras present, so what we see on screen is literally 123 mins of Amy up close and personal, from her early childhood to the day before she died. The first part of the film, with its footage of a smiling teenage Winehouse and friends, is testament to the dawn of Smartphone technology, which gave the kids access to cheap and easy filming, and the idea of living in the gaze of one’s own camera. We see Amy backstage at her first concerts, horsing around in cars, and along the way get tiny glimpses into the vulnerability that overcame her in later years.
What’s crystal clear in this part of the film is Amy’s intelligence, wit, strength of character and talent, both as a songwriter and a musician. Her then manager Nick Shymansky talks of her ability to shine a light on someone, making them feel all important, and then just as quickly, turning it off. In early TV interview footage, she’s mouthy and opinionated, unable to control her facial expressions when something doesn’t sit right with her. She’s a brave ingenue, negotiating the music industry on her own terms.
The movie shifts a gear when she’s interviewed backstage at a music festival a short while after meeting the man the media charged with her destruction, Blake Fielder. She’s obviously high, still articulate and opinionated, but struggling to piece it all together. From the outset Fielder is painted as a cad who picked her up, dropped her, and picked her up again when she went global – an addict who found his “gravy train”. He recounts their relationship, warts and all, with little emotion, admitting that he was the first person to introduce her to heroin and crack cocaine, not shying away from the part he played, or even bothering to make excuses for it. However, there’s a constant sense with him that he’s not telling the whole story, that something is being held back.
The other key man in Amy’s life, her father Mitchell, isn’t telling the whole story either. In words he portrays the essence of a caring, protective parent, but the film’s edit tells a different tale. Early on we hear that Amy came to her parents as a teenager and told them of a great new diet she’d discovered, where she could eat what she liked and then vomit it up. Both parents admit that they brushed this alarming information aside, Mitchell putting to down to “a phase”. Later, when Amy is at the height of her fame, tortured by paparazzi, bulimia and addiction, her father becomes instrumental in shoving her further into the limelight, despite clear indications that the limelight is ruining her. His reasons for doing so appear both myopic and selfish.
When Fielder goes to prison for possession, Amy takes off to the island of St. Lucia to get the drugs out of her system, and the paparazzi out of her life for a few months, but Mitchell turns up with a camera crew in tow for a TV show about being Amy Winehouse’s father. A telling scene takes place when Mitchell asks her to pose for a photo with a random couple on the beach. It’s one that’s central not only to the thesis of Kapada’s film, but also to the history of Amy’s dysfunction.
Throughout the film when Amy is singing, her lyrics flash up on screen. It’s a neat device to keep us connected to the content of her songs, and also to her deeper interior, which only found voice in the music she made. Otherwise, the film descends into a nightmare in which she slowly fades away, so painfully that her disappearance is etched onto her body.
There’s a ruse that Kapada employs as Amy’s story spirals towards its inevitable end. He chooses pap shots and film sequences that are taken from a slight distance – Amy viewed at a bar through its windows, Amy running away from cameras, Amy trying to get into a cab surrounded by a press mob – and it makes the viewer somehow believe that the footage is his, instead of a montage of the paparazzi shots that actually helped drive the woman over the edge.
This is clever, in that it puts us at a distance too, making us objective observers of the meaningless invasiveness of media obsession. But there’s a sickening inclusivity going on at the same time. Kapada may end the film by revisiting earlier, happier footage, but he puts us through the mill as we watch Amy’s destruction, ratcheting up the drama via the unflinching glare of crazed cameramen. We see selfies taken by Amy in her house weeks before she died, and she looks like a hunted animal. A drawn-out sequence at her final concert in Serbia, where she had given up the ghost completely, and was booed for being unable to perform, is harder to watch because it’s shot by a member of the audience on a smartphone. It’s horrific, but you know you’d probably have had your iPhone in the air too, distancing yourself from the human degradation on show to get some good footage for your Facebook feed.
In the end, a few rise above the mire to stand out as people who had Amy’s interests at heart instead of their own – her best childhood friends, the bodyguard who looked after her in the final year – but everyone else in Amy borders on vampiric, and that includes the filmmakers. What kind of fuckery is this?
‘Amy’ opens in Ireland on July 3
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