FOUR STARS The rise and fall of singer Amy Winehouse.
DOCUMENTARY UK English #AMY
Starring Amy Winehouse
Asif Kapadia’s (Senna) compelling documentary about the late, great Amy Winehouse, owes a lot to the age we live in, where everyone uses digital cameras and blogs to record their lives.
In this case, they captured a life lived in the fast lane and cut tragically short in 2011. It is achingly sad (and almost akin to a Shakespearean drama) watching the central character as she is manipulated and let down by those close to her. It also shows how fame caused the downfall of an artist who, although brilliant and talented, succumbed to her insecurities, drowning in the abuse of drugs and alcohol. Spookily, in one of her early interviews Amy is asked how far she thinks she will go and she responds with a prescient reply, saying that she wouldn’t be able to handle fame, that it would drive her mad. It’s an eerie indication of what lies ahead.
Early amateur footage introduces us to a young Brit who looked and sounded like many girls in London at the time. She is however, born with a talent that takes a while to be recognised. There were many female singers around at that time but few had the sound that Winehouse delivered; she was compared to the black American jazz and blues greats of the 20th century. This is what made her unique. It wasn’t often you heard a voice of that calibre coming out of a young, white, Jewish girl! In 2005 she met her husband-to-be, Blake Fielder-Civil (who turned her on to heroin and crack cocaine) and, regrettably, her obsession with him led to her becoming an addict and losing control. It is particularly heart-breaking to see her demise on screen, as it didn’t take long before she was unable to hold it together on stage. Subsequently her reputation was ridiculed by the likes of TV host Jay Leno, who took malicious delight in parodying her on his show when the news broke about her staggering off stage during a performance, after he had sung her praises in an earlier interview when she was soaring up the charts! Kapadia skilfully portrays how vile the celebrity circuit is when ‘stars’ start to fall apart in front of their audiences, but at no time does he make a mockery of Amy’s situation. It is apparent he was, and remains, a fan of this remarkable artist.
The early footage of her home life clearly demonstrates how ‘normal’ her upbringing was; we then follow her rise to fame chronologically and thus get to see and hear her incredible musical skills develop as she starts writing her own material. What is very evident is the fact that her lyrics were highly autobiographical, reflecting what was going on in her life at the time. This was most apparent in her second and final studio album Back to Black when she sang, “…and I tread a troubled track…my odds are stacked…” Although Fielder-Civil was the inspiration for many of her soul-searching lines he, like some others around her, appeared to be intent on cashing in on her fame – at least to buy drugs if not for any other reason; her father Mitch was one of the ‘others’ too, and there’s a telling scene in the film when he turns up with a documentary crew on the Caribbean island where Amy has gone to write new songs. Pissed off, she says, “Dad, if you need money just tell me!”
Cleverly, Amy is largely ‘narrated’ by the protagonist herself. Kapadia must have had access to a wealth of sound and video recordings and he’s been able to use these to put together a compelling script. Winehouse’s story is complemented by the recollections of her old friends and collaborators and people with whom she recorded. In fact, if there’s a fault to the film it’s perhaps that the editor, Chris King (Senna), was just a little too lenient with his scissors – at 128 minutes, it feels a bit stretched. Overall, though, this documentary is poignant viewing; knowing that it ends with the loss of such a superb talent makes for a moving cinematic experience. However, there is solace in knowing that by the age of 27, Amy Winehouse had won six Grammy Awards and become one of the finest female singers to emerge this century. She may be gone but she won’t be forgotten - Amy will see to that.