Amy (2015) Directed by Asif Kapadia


I didn't think that this would be a difficult review to write, because there is so much to say about Amy, the documentary about Amy Winehouse. Yet, for days I have avoided writing my thoughts down. Instead I have listened to Back to Black, I have googled Blake Fielder (!!!) and I have returned to the year 2007. Eight years ago I was in Austin at the same time with Amy. She had six official performances at that year's SXSW, I had two. She cancelled many of hers. She was a megastar promoting her second album – unravelling onstage and in the media. I was in town releasing my first album on small indie label in the USA, writing my second one. In Austin, March 2007 I stood on the balcony of the convention center, smoking a free American Spirit (yes, they handed out endless packets of free American Spirits up there) and thinking that I will never see her play live. I didn't. By 2015 I have recorded five albums under my name and fought my own round with death. Amy, a woman one year younger than me, died of alcohol poisoning in 2011.

Watching the home videos and amateur footage (which most of the documentary is made with) of the young Amy Winehouse made me uncomfortable. Instead of a large catalogue of different kinds of Amy Winehouse music projects and albums, all that is there is this very personal and often low quality film of a teenager goofing around. And a young woman ill with eating disorders and drug addictions. The clips reveal a vulnerable, undeveloped and immature woman who possess an infinitely deep voice. Amy appears endearing: she does not hold back, she does not pretend and she does not filter. What unravels is a tragedy. It is sad in itself that she did not get to develop her path with music. And even worse that she was surrounded by a helpless bunch of people who did not look out for her.

It must be true in life, but it is definitely true in music business that you have to surround yourself with people who not only believe in you, but respect you. Easier said than done. Amy Winehouse appeared to have trouble to rely on her parents for support and borders as a child. Later, her talent attracted music professionals – who could see the potential in her as an artist and a monetary venture. Unfortunately, her very nearest people were there to share her successes, but not there to help her shield herself from abuse, burnout, depression or exploitation. Without pointing fingers to any one person, the documentary shows how easy it was for Amy to slip through nets and into the mud. I remember thinking in 2011 after the Belgrade concert disaster that she will die and never release an album again. I thought so largely because media represented her as a walking drug-casualty. This documentary is the key to remembering her as a serious artist (who was lost way too early). I can only imagine what amazing tunes she might have sung at a later age, if the paparazzi would have left her alone and the bad boyfriends would have been long gone.

Apparently whilst we were watching Amy, I was breathing heavily (something I didn't notice) and people were looking around. My nose was blocked and it really felt like I was coming down with the flu. The reason I didn't notice my distracting behaviour was my complete immersion into Kapadia's Amy Winehouse documentary. Kapadia has form in this format, with his much celebrated Senna seemingly setting new standards for these type of biographies (a documentary I sadly haven't seen). Ninety nine percent of the footage in Amy is personal. Kapadia eschews all official promo footage giving us just a few clips from TV interviews with Winehouse. This creates a personal ride of a film. Lots of footage comes from Amy's first manager (and close friend) Nick Shymansky, who seems to have videoed virtually every moment of Amy's from the age of 17 till the release of her second album Back To Black. The film is of a blur and grain quality, which belies the fact that these are actually very recent events (the poor quality often gives this an older feeling). Winehouse narrates a lot of this as do her family and music business associates. It's a fully rounded picture of the singer.

A young Winehouse collects her Ivor Novello award
So I come to Amy as not much of a Winehouse fan. I really enjoyed Back To Black (and especially the great single tracks), first album Frank didn't really register other than as a jazzy/muso exploration. I remember being at Austin's South By Southwest 2007 with Astrid and missing Winehouse' s many performances due to cancellations (and the first signs of trouble). But Amy Winehouse had never peaked my interest. What Amy revealed to me was how raw and exceptional and REAL Winehouse's talent was. We also realize that Winehouse was rooted in the normality of any young teenager, her basic life view is engaging and refreshing in an often calculating and serious business. Amy had attitude galore but honestly too, and she was really in it for her art. Her family come across as not being able to recognize many of Winehouse's problems – that would eventually do for her – even at an early age (bulimia, addiction). Her father Mitch not only becomes the centre of her biggest hit (Rehab), but comes across as particularly inept and uncaring as his daughter's problems mount. Winehouse's fame was fast and her demise equally so. As a cautionary tale, Amy almost becomes unbelievably cliched and unrealistically tragic. We have to realise that most of these events are very recent, increasing one's incredulity and, 'how the hell could this have happened' feelings.

Amy fully captures the hell Winehouse's life became as played out by the tabloids
The usual suspects of incompetence, greed and plain stupidity are fully paraded: an oblivious record label, agent and manager/father who despite being fully aware of Amy's many problems seemed to be unwilling participants in getting her any real help once the massive gravy train of Back To Black reared into action. The love of Amy's life and the biggest cause of her drug hell and subsequent collapse from public performance – husband Blake Fielder-Civil – comes across as a self-serving incompetent, unable to put his own addictions behind him to get Winehouse the help she needed. His meal ticket wouldn't be compromised. But we're all somehow complicit in the disaster that became Winehouse's life and the morbid fascination with fucked-up celebrity. This only enhances Amy's power as document and our reluctance to look away as Winehouse's life spirals cruelly out of control. Amy doesn't hold back on the full force and destruction the mainstream media can wreak on such a vulnerable figure as Winehouse. Watching Amy and the pressures she was under, it's no surprise Winehouse spectacularly 'lost it' and then some. The paparazzi behaviour hear leaves one feeling disgusted and culpable in Amy's ultimate demise. But whilst Kapadia's film does lead to the obvious conclusion, it's not what I'll take from this. You can't help but feel for Amy and her promise. The sheer ebullience of her early life leaves a mark as much as the tragedy that follows. It at least gives you the chance to realize that Winehouse did spend most of her life happy. The natural talent, untainted by opinion but just a joyful expression burns bright in Amy, and that is Kapadia's real achievement.


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