Asif Kapadia’s Amy has a deep thread of sorrow running through it. This 2015 documentary about the life and death of British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse captures existence in spiral and everybody knows how the story ends. There are no easy answers, no simplistic targets in the blame game.
That’s because the story of Winehouse’s passing is bigger than any single person and larger than any single idea. Kapadia’s picture thinks broad because the subject is broad. For all the self-absorbed manipulations of Mitch Winehouse and all the loathsome treatment by media vultures, the truth is hard to measure but easier to sing about. Love is, after all, a losing game.
Amy begins with the singer as an ordinary teen from the suburb of Southgate. She has friends, Juliette and Lauren, and she likes jazz tunes. She has an insane voice, so she makes her way to moderate success and considerable buzz with the 2003 album Frank. With pressure mounting for a follow-up and Winehouse playing pool rather than writing tunes, life in the pressure cooker initiates.
Anyone with even a passing fancy for the tabloids knows the stories. There is Blake Fielder-Civil, a damaged soul, and there is bulimia. Her parents dismiss trouble as a phase. Her second and final record, Back to Black, is released in 2006 to fanfare and makes her an international star. Trips to rehab fade and the camera bulbs will not stop flashing.
Kapadia launches himself into the mess with as much cohesion as could be expected and what results is a tragic tale. Winehouse is surrounded by enablers, with few true friends to speak of, and she continues to slip further into the chasm. Sometimes, she reaches for a sliver of light and it appears that everything will be okay. But then, the bottom falls out all over again.
Amy is filled with some astonishing footage and is the product of 100 interviews with friends and family. They are presented in audio form, with Kapadia and cinematographer Matt Curtis weaving a visual narrative of Winehouse photos and video footage. There is also footage of some tremendous live sessions, many of which provide valuable insight along with dazzling entertainment.
Kapadia also digs into the archives for some personal footage, giving Amy an intimate feel. At times, it feels invasive. An extended lensing over stills of Winehouse in a park feels like ogling, slightly undermining the movie’s valid criticisms about the behaviour of paparazzi, big-chinned dipshit talk show hosts and beardy comedians.
But mostly, Amy gets at what made Winehouse such an incredible performer. She sounds like a human being in interviews, speaking without any trained elocution. She’s nervous in front of Tony Bennett, fiddling and pacing during the recording of “Body and Soul” in 2011. And she’s unruly in front of a Serbian crowd, as they roar at her to “sing!” and she chuckles in the throes of self-sabotage once more.
And there are the songs, presented over beautiful visuals with the lyrics sometimes penned over the screen. Live session recordings for tracks like “Rehab” and “In My Bed” are haunting reminders of her genius, while pieces like “Detachment” give lie to what was still inside the performer. The lyrics to “You Always Hurt the Ones You Love” are particularly poignant.
Kapadia’s Amy communicates the beautiful mess of Winehouse’s life with elegance, even if it’s not always the most innovative documentary. It tells the tale of the woman who said she’d give it all back just to be able to walk down the street without being watched. And it explores the complicity of the world around her, a world content to kick a broken soul to pieces while waiting for the next song.