Weighing Up the Pros and Cons of the New Amy Winehouse Documentary

Asif Kapadia's <i>Amy</i> is a brilliant reminder of why we fell in love with pop music's greatest recent jazz singer. But does it tell a skewed story of the 27-year-old's death?

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Jul 1 2015, 10:10am

All stills from film.

Watching Asif Kapadia's fifth feature-length film about Amy Winehouse is a double-edged sword. Amy, which charts Winehouse's meteoric rise and untimely death, shows you once again just how and why the Camden singer and songwriter could cause the hairs at the back of your neck to stand on end while making you feel like a concerned parent waiting for your kid to get home. But the film can't do this – just four years after Winehouse was found dead from alcohol poisoning at the age of 27 – without dredging up some of the same issues that led to her downfall: namely, the prying lens of the camera.

For Kapadia, the documentary is a return to familiar territory, following the director's box office hit in 2010, Senna. That film too was about a life cut short by a perilous profession, surveying the decade-long stint Ayrton Senna enjoyed as a Formula One driver, from his 1984 debut to his fatal collision with a wall during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

Like Kapadia's previous film, Amy consists entirely of archive footage, stills and previously unseen home recordings. Though there are audio testimonies from her collaborators, close friends and family members, the film generally eschews traditional talking heads. This means that the imagery unfolds in what feels like the present, only haunted by the dreadful ramifications of her death with interviewees referring to Winehouse in the past tense. It plays out like some strange commentary track played over a memorial reel, and is all the more eerie for it.

WATCH: 'A Teenage Amy Winehouse Sing Happy Birthday to Her Friend' on Noisey

In early sequences, Winehouse's likeability, humility and infectious energy hit you like a freight train. We first see her as a teenager, channelling Marilyn Monroe when singing "Happy Birthday". Soon after she sings "Moon River", showing off her maturity as well as her playfulness. Recalling the first time that she performed for him before landing a record deal, Island Records' Nick Gatfield says, "She walked in and she was a force of nature... She was an old soul in a very young body. We made the deal very quickly." The best scene though, is her comedy Spanish accent in clips from a home-movie taken at a holiday villa in Majorca.

Winehouse's unassuming nature was given an extra dimension by her frequently visible allergy to media clichés. In one archive clip, when a journalist tries to make her life story analogous to that of Dido, the musician humours her, feigning sincerity long after her face displays indifference-cum-weariness. Very early, in fact, Kapadia shows the musician to have been deeply aware of fame's dangers: "I don't think I could handle it," she told one interviewer on the topic of stardom, "I think I'd go mad."

Later, in response to increasing attentions from the media, Winehouse remarked, "The more they see of me the more they'll realise the only thing I'm good for is making music... Just leave me alone." Such lines are made all the more tragic in the film as Kapadia edits them over stills taken by paparazzi who were already actively hounding her private life, as she became synonymous with Camden's club scene. Footage of her being chased into cars under unceasing flash photography is particularly hard to watch when you know what's coming.

"A jazz artist doesn't like 50,000 people in front of them," says Tony Bennett, the veteran with whom Winehouse won a posthumous Grammy for a duet of "Body and Soul" in 2012. It's during the clip of her recording this number with Bennett, one of her true idols, that we really see the extent of her humility: Winehouse wanted nothing more than to make music, and to see her so genuinely nervous around this fellow professional is heart-swelling.

It's a toxic cycle: wary of fame, Winehouse retreated into the excesses of a rock-star lifestyle – the same lifestyle that helped insulate her from the help she so desperately needed. Where was her support? As drugs counsellor Chip Somers notes in the film, when money and expectations are involved, perspectives become skewered. This might go some way to account for the apparently rapacious behaviour exhibited by those close to Winehouse during her final years – but it doesn't explain things entirely, because there's no reason why money and fame in themselves should be so harmful.

By halfway through the film, Winehouse is already on the verge of a comeback following a number of stints in rehab clinics for her drug addictions and alcoholism. Friends and family note that the catalyst for these was the death of her grandmother in 2006, though Kapadia widens his net, including footage and testimonies to touch upon the singer's depression ("I don't think I knew what depression was – I thought it was a musician thing") as well as the crippling anxieties that left her vulnerable to abusive relationships and self-destructive behaviour.

Presenting his patchwork of testimonies without any explicit intervention of his own, Kapadia cloaks this very constructed film in a veil of objectivity. But some of the director's choices here reveal a speculative mindset rather than a genuinely investigative one. Though assembling the masses of audiovisual material gleaned from his research into one seamless montage is no easy task, Kapadia's film at times mistakes a chronological presentation of events as a comprehensive explanation of them, and that's one of its major shortcomings.

It's when dealing with Blake Fielder-Civil, however – Winehouse's husband between 2007 and 2009 (and who has since admitted introducing her to heroin) – that Amy is especially disconcerting. There's something curiously pushy and knowing in the way Kapadia repeatedly slows down the archive footage and brings in creepy drone music to underscore darker intents of clips featuring Fielder-Civil. It's ominous, yes, but predictable too – and in retroactively imposing meaning onto it, it transforms the footage into evidence of an inevitable death.

Testimonies from Juliette Ashby, one of Winehouse's close friends, are also especially distressing to hear, not only because she's on the verge of tears at several points, but because Kapadia ultimately underserves her audible heartache concerning Winehouse's treatment by her own dad, Mitch Winehouse.

Although Kapadia does dedicate a sequence to Amy's 2010 holiday to St. Lucia, which was interrupted when her dad showed up with his own film crew for a reality TV show he was fronting, the director's structural framework prevents him from interrogating Mitch Winehouse further. And so while we sense a complex mix of guilt and anguish in Ashby's vocal tremors, Mitch merely comes across as a selfish parasite at worst and an unexpectedly famous north London taxi driver at best, trying (and failing miserably) to negotiate the same ruthless media harrying his daughter.

Spending more time on Mitch Winehouse – not to mention his daughter's manager Raye Cosbert, who must surely bear some responsibility for allowing the singer anywhere near the stage the night she got booed off in Belgrade just weeks before her death – might have resulted in a fairer assessment on Kapadia's part. The same goes for Fielder-Civil, whose selected presence in video recordings here paints him in about as bad a light as his appearance on the Jeremy Kyle Show did in 2013, without telling us much more.

Intentionally or otherwise, Amy partakes in the media's main offence: narrativising Winehouse's arc, sensationalising her, speculating about her, making her infamous. In reducing the artist's life to a series of clips that provide evidence to explain her death, it turns her into the very thing she didn't want to be: a generic rock'n'roll star. Footage of Frankie Boyle and Jay Leno taking pops at Winehouse during her lowest ebb, meanwhile, reminds us how most accounts of Winehouse's life – including, to an extent, this one – preyed upon her weakness and trouble with the same caprice with which they later (with crocodile tears) sold her death as a shocking tragedy.

At its best, though, Amy presents the singer's career in a digestible two-hour window. As an overview of an outstanding, original talent, it's not without its insights. And for all its shortcomings, there remains the footage of Winehouse herself: charming and beautiful, intoxicating and unknowable, untouchable and brilliant.

Amy is out in UK cinemas this Friday the 3rd of July

@m_pattison

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