‘Amy’ Review: Remembering The Genius, Sadness And Humanity Of Amy Winehouse
Reliving the media feeding frenzy that was Amy Winhouse's downfall makes for disturbing, compelling viewing.
Amy Winehouse had nothing to hide. She even knew she set herself up by naming one of her biggest singles ‘Rehab’. By no means did that make her straightforward or predictable. Yet to the public—who had no definitive reference point beyond her deeply personal lyrics—she often came across as a woman of many personas, reworking the details of her life depending on the audience she was entertaining. As the central focus and namesake of a new documentary, director Asif Kapadia re-introduces us to a woman that few could keep up with, as talented and passionate as she was vulnerable and unfiltered.
The film documents Amy’s childhood, rise to fame, conflicted relationship with ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, and dwindling period of creative output thereafter, connecting the dots to her untimely demise from complications with drug and alcohol abuse. As Amy’s life unfolds before us, we’re dared to remain detached, and with good reason. This is a film that urges us to revive our empathy and attention in a world that would rather find a way for female pain and trauma to remain profitable and newsworthy.
Bad Influences And Tough Love
It would be convenient to write Amy off as a victim of her own success. This absolves us of perhaps seeing ourselves in a woman who may be in trouble, who maybe got drunk too many times or who grew attracted to the wrong men. What Amy shows us that other documentaries have shied away from is the possibility that those who were tasked with caring for her well-being during her short life and career failed miserably. Kapadia masterfully doesn’t accuse anyone of anything, but allows the footage (which is organised in strictly chronological order) to speak for itself.
Stitched together from phone cameras, home recordings, television and radio appearances, photographs, and voice-overs from interviews with close family, friends, and industry figures, Kapadia and editor Chris King have created a language of past events, conversations and observations to try and articulate the slippery nature of being held accountable for someone whose success many people benefited from.
As we watch Amy grow up from a precociously talented teenager into a recognisable star in her early twenties, it becomes clear she needed someone in her life to say no and create better boundaries. Blake Fielder-Civil is portrayed as especially harmful, receiving far more screen time than any friend or family member, faithful to the reality that he was a prominent presence in the artist’s life. Despite being the inspiration for her most commercially successful album, Back to Black, we learn that he was also responsible for introducing her to hard drugs. He even admits: “…it’s the only thing I was bringing to the table for a while, cos…I couldn’t match her financially”.
In 2007, Amy and Blake decided to get married, and we witness some of the footage recorded that day. “Who’s paying for this? I’m broke,” Blake says over the bustle of the wedding reception to the camera. When it’s revealed that Amy is footing the bill, Fielder-Civil orders and drinks from a bottle of Dom Perignon. It’s tempting to identify him as a grown man that refused to stop riding the gravy train of his more successful girlfriend. But we also learn that similarly to Amy, he was also fighting his own demons and struggled growing up as a child of divorced parents.
It’s clear her family and childhood friends loved and cared about her deeply but as her professional obligations became more demanding (tours, live performances, media appearances), tough love, the belief that she couldn’t be forced to go to treatment, and pressure to become something she wasn’t prepared to be took its toll.
Amy’s father Mitch, a former London cabbie, has distanced himself from the film, unhappy with his portrayal. We hardly see him in any of Amy’s childhood footage (he separated from the family when she was nine years old), re-appearing on camera when Amy begins to gain international recognition. He was present when she won three of her six Grammy nominations (one of which was announced by Amy and Mitch’s musical idol, Tony Bennett). And he was overly present when Amy decided to go on an eight-month holiday in St. Lucia. When it was revealed he brought along a camera crew to make My Daughter, Amy, a documentary that would air on British television a year later, Amy and Mitch have an off-camera confrontation (with the audio still recording). Frustrated, Amy took to Twitter to express her distaste at the decision. The media did little to relieve the situation, and as their interest in her intensified, so did their participation in the events leading up to 2011.
“The World Wanted A Piece of Her”
Whilst Amy may have musically been placed in the same cannon as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, the media seemed satisfied to size her up alongside Britney and Lindsay Lohan: women who were seen as threat to themselves, women without autonomy, women who wanted to disappear. The paparazzi becomes a habitual presence in Amy’s life that’s reflected in Kapadia’s re-telling; the blinding flashes and desperate snapping of the camera lens turning into a visual and aural motif that builds up increasingly as she becomes more recognisably famous. “If I could give it all back just to walk down the street with no hassle, I would,” we hear Amy say.
What the documentary chose not to include was how she tried to be kind (making them tea; handing over McDonald’s as a peace offering) to the people who made a living from documenting every move that lead to her downfall. As the use of home videos begin to fade away it’s eerie watching back all the footage used to remind us of the last years of her life. A lot of what we see is repurposed; some of it even still available to track down on YouTube. A feeling of I’ve seen that before, I’ve clicked that clickbait-y headline, I’ve laughed at that joke, I watched that happen begins to sink in. It’s particularly jarring to see the fickleness of the industry play out so predictably: she became lesser known for appearing as a musical guest on talk shows and more recognised for being included as opening monologue fodder when her drug abuse and deteriorating health became public knowledge.
As women, we become used to having our work used against us: things we say are taken out of context, quoted back to us ironically, foreshadowing stories we didn’t think would become public property. In the case of Winehouse, addiction is complicated. Making art out of pain isn’t a career choice without its risks. And the same pain and sadness that allows someone the freedom to swing between extremes, and express authenticity in an industry that has very little, can also leave someone powerless. For everything that seemed to go wrong in Amy’s life, Kapadia doesn’t want to contribute to condemning her. One of the most bittersweet moments in the film was a posthumous eulogy from her hero Tony Bennett who was in the studio with Amy for one of her last recordings, reminding us: “Life teaches you how to live it if you can live long enough.”
At their worst, documentaries about deceased musicians can feel like a franchise or a feature-length ‘who gets the last word’ brawl. Amy feels different. Kapadia wants us to empathise instead of feeling compelled to hold her life’s work against her. After all, this was a woman who was beyond the bounds of neatly packaged explanation. She was the same person who can make you laugh out loud with how skeptical she was of the industry she participated in, and then make your heart sink with a montage of hollow-eyed webcam selfies found on her laptop.
To its credit, Amy doesn’t decide to dwell cloyingly on the ‘what would’ve happened if’; that’s a question that should take place outside of the cinema, if we feel ready to consider it. For a career as epic as it is devastating, previous attempts at telling her story speculated that Amy Winehouse’s accomplishments were possible in spite of her identity. Kapadia wanted us to consider how her talent and music transcended it.
Amy is in cinemas from July 2.
Nathania is a Melbourne-based video editor and writer. She mostly retweets@unicornology.