WRITTEN REVIEW – Amy (2015)
Directed by: Asif Kapadia
Written by: N/A
Starring: Amy Winehouse
Music: Antônio Pinto & Amy Winehouse
Release Date: July 3rd 2015
In terms of UK documentary filmmakers, very few names have the clout of Asif Kapadia – the critically acclaimed director who burst onto the documentary scene in 2010 with ‘Senna‘ which focused on the life and death of Brazilian motor-racing champion Ayrton Senna. ‘Senna‘ was touted as an Oscar-snub as it was able to reach a mainstream audience that couldn’t care less about motor-racing due to its engaging story-telling and emotional hook.
Now, Kapadia returns with ‘Amy‘ which focuses on the life and death of British singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse who tragically died of alcohol-poisoning at the age of 27 in 2011 and has been considered one of the greatest musical talents of the 21st century so far. Can lightning strike twice with Kapadia in terms of getting those who have no interest in popular music invested in Winehouse’s story? And what about fans of Winehouse who think they already know everything about her?
“I’m not a girl trying to be a star. I’m just a girl that sings. The more people see of me, the more they’ll realise that all I’m good for is making music.”
‘Amy‘ follows the life of soul and jazz singer Amy Winehouse. The documentary goes from her childhood including the seperation of her parents to the early days of her career as she burst onto the music scene with her debut album “Frank”, the creation of the biggest album of the 21st century; “Back to Black”, as well as her personal relationships with friends, family, boyfriends, her Grammy wins and her descent into alcohol/drug abuse and addiction. All of which culminates in her death in 2011. Director Asif Kapadia conducted over 100 audio-only interviews with family and friends who give insight into her life and the documentary uses home-footage as well as never before seen behind-the-scenes footage of her recording some of her most famous tracks.
As stated earlier, there are no on-camera interviews with any of the people that Asif Kapadia spoke to for ‘Amy‘. This is unconventional for most documentaries but the end result is a movie that feels efficient and slick and since there are no cut-aways there are no breaks in the pacing. And while I can’t speak for all viewers, I myself almost had a Marvel Comic’s Daredevil effect where you focus more on the audio, how the words are said and the emotion behind the voices when you lose the visual stimuli.
I was able to pay more attention to cracks in voices or even certain pregnant pauses which enhanced the emotions in ‘Amy‘ and made it feel much more intimate and personal. Kapadia’s philosophy is that people are more open and honest when just talking to a microphone as supposed to a camera and ‘Amy‘ benefits from that approach.
As for the footage on display in ‘Amy‘, it’s absolutely astounding as to how much is in here. There are reels of home footage, videos of Amy with friends travelling around London and films recorded by Amy and her friends detailing their personal lives. There is so much footage and it serves ‘Amy’ so well that I was almost convinced that some of it was re-created, but that’s apparently not the case. As the movie progresses and Amy becomes a much more prolific person it goes without saying that there will be a lot more footage of her, but when it comes to her life before her 2003 debut album “Frank”, the amount of access the viewer has to Amy’s pre-career life is incredible.
‘Amy‘ is a documentary that fires on all cylinders and one of the main reasons for that is that Amy Winehouse herself is such an over-whelming personality. She’s more than eager to hog the camera, she’s very vocal and outspoken whilst also trying to make light-hearted quips at any opportunity. You get attached to Amy very quickly and enjoy spending time with her which ultimately makes her fall all the more hard-hitting.
One important factor to consider when it comes to Amy Winehouse’s career is that it escalated phenomenally quickly. Her debut album was in 2003, her follow-up album, “Back To Black” was in 2006 and that album led to five Grammy wins in 2008 before her death in 2011. Her career lasted under 8 years which, in the grand scheme of things, is an incredibly short amount of time. Amy Winehouse’s final 8 years was a tragic escalation and she was a victim of the success that she never really wanted as during televised interviews Amy states that she would ideally want to perform to small crowds in jazz clubs or underground bars as opposed to sell-out stadiums or broadcast performances being shown to hundreds of millions of people.
In terms of pop culture icons, Amy Winehouse (as presented in this documentary) is almost akin to Diana, Princess of Wales, in that she was completely hounded by the press and the paparazzi and an argument can be made that those people played a part in the death of a celebrity as they would literally do anything to get news stories from them. My screening opened with a warning for viewers that potentially suffered from epilepsy due to flashing images and the reason for this warning is that there are a couple of scenes where Amy leaves a building and the moment she walks out of the door she is flooded by flashing lights from cameras and phones to the point where it’s nearly a constant white-screen.
This is indicative of the cultural obsession with her as a celebrity. One particularly poignant sequence has a montage of other celebrities and talk-show hosts make fun of her during her battle with alcohol and drugs which were probably funny at the time and with no knowledge of Winehouse’s demons but looking back and having just spent a prior 70 minutes getting to know Amy as a person and relate to her struggles gives you a new perspective on how badly certain public-figures are treated.
The same news outlets that mocked her during her darkest days also cried crocodile tears after her death and touted it as a tragedy. I just thought that was worth pointing out.
And all of this is exacerbated by her relationship with her boyfriend Reg Traviss which was incredibly damaging due to his negative influence and the 3rd act inclusion of her father “Mitch” Winehouse who forcibly brought more cameras into Amy’s life as she was desperately trying to get away from the press and the constant media coverage (the 2010 TV documentary “My Daughter Amy” gets name-checked).
Amy Winehouse wrote music that reflected what was currently going on in her life as a form of catharsis and self-recovery but when combined with success and fame this wound up being another aspect to her downfall. She wrote “Back To Black” when her relationship to Reg Traviss originally broke down and it was one of the most difficult periods of her life. She eventually got back with Reg and overcame many of her struggles, but because “Back To Black” was such a big hit she was expected to perform it all the time at concerts and gigs. And since Amy was such a soulful performer, she had to revisit traumatic periods in her life over and over again whenever she performed one of her popular, personal songs. It’s a tragic dynamic between an artist and the consumer and ‘Amy‘ does an incredible job at laying it bare for the audience to consume and ponder over long after its over.
The one issue with ‘Amy‘ is that the last few minutes feel very rushed with the movie ending at the death of Amy Winehouse. Up until that point ‘Amy‘ had done a wonderful job at giving the viewer a broad cultural context as to how the world was responding to what Amy did but there is none of that fallout or reaction when she dies. The movie just ends and it’s incredibly abrupt and feels like there is still a chapter that needs to be told. However, the fact that audience members in my screening stuck around for the entirety of the credits which also had footage of Amy performing some of her songs showed that the movie did succeed in getting people emotionally attached to Winehouse as a person and as an artist.
Despite only talking about the life and death of one person, ‘Amy‘ is such a well assembled and well told documentary that it manages to encompass the celebrity experience, the dichotomy between artist and audience, the fallout of childhood and teenage trauma, the danger of constant media exposure and more in an easily digestible way. Asif Kapadia has created a wonderful, moving and tragic documentary and has made fans of people who previously knew nothing about Amy Winehouse or her music. Winehouse herself is a personal force of nature and a compelling person to base a movie around and the sheer amount of footage and behind-the-scenes videos of her life is simply unmatched in the theatrical documentary genre. Its ending may been phenomenally abrupt and at 128 minutes it does feel a bit on the long side, but for those who want a dark insight at the consequences of being a public figure in the 21st century (or worse, a TALENTED public figure), ‘Amy‘ gets an unreserved recommendation.
I give ‘Amy‘ 4 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 11th Aug 15