This is an article contributed by writer Helen Sanders
Grainy, amateur footage shows a group of young teenage girls sitting on the narrow stairs of a London flat. They are chattering, self-consciously licking lollipops. “Happy birthday, Lauren!” they squeal. An off-key chorus of ‘Happy birthday’ begins. Quickly, one voice rises above the rest. The others fall silent as the incredible sound pours forth, and the camera jerkily swings round to film the source. Grinning, doing a hammy Marilyn Monroe impression, a high-cheekboned, happy-looking fourteen year old girl with a mass of glossy black hair finishes the song with a sophisticated vocal flourish. It’s Amy Winehouse, of course. This is the first scene of an ambitious, emotional, and intimate documentary which mixes amateur footage, interviews, photographs, and Amy’s own words in an in-depth look at the tragic, talented Ms Winehouse’s short life. It’s gripping viewing even if you aren’t a fan of Amy’s music - if you’re a Winehouse aficionado, it’s an absolutely essential watch.
‘Tender’ is a word often used to describe a project of this kind. It’s not entirely out of place here, but it also implies a kind of whitewash, and this is by no means a whitewash. Amy’s life unrolls before us in all of its glorious, tawdry brilliance. ‘Amy’ was directed by Asif Kapadia, who by all accounts went to obsessive lengths to tell his subject’s story. The amount of personal footage he’s managed to obtain of Amy’s life is astonishing, as is the trust which he apparently inspires in those who were closest to her. Her childhood friends (Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, who stuck by Amy throughout her life) and early manager, Nick Shymansky took what appears to be a ‘vow of silence’ following the singer’s tragic death. Indeed, Shymanksy only gave a curt two minute talk (under duress) to Amy’s own father while Mitch Winehouse was writing his posthumous book about his daughter - yet Shymanksy opens both his heart and his archives to Kapadia. The result is a fascinating biopic. Kapadia wisely lets the story tell itself - his own presence is never felt within the documentary as a whole. Instead, the viewer feels as though they are standing within Amy’s inner circle, watching her story occur before their eyes. By the end of it, the viewer has developed a close relationship with the troubled star, and is emotionally wrung out by witnessing the traumas of her life.
Knowing what is coming, it is all too easy for viewers to try and draw conclusions about Amy’s character from discussions of her early life. As her early career starts to develop, we see a smiling Amy shake a bag of weed at a camera her friend is holding. "You're doing this on camera? Really?" her friend says, dubiously. She and her mother speak of her childhood naughtiness, and of her mother's exhaustive inability to tell her "No". It’s all too easy to make judgements with hindsight - but thus far this is nothing out of the ordinary for a talented creative. Certainly the potential for self-destruction is evident - Amy is periodically depressed, volatile, and prone to wildness - but she is nothing particularly unusual. Only her talent makes her situation incredible - and it is this which will ultimately lead to her meteoric rise and tragic downfall.
Enter the man who many Winehouse fans consider to be the ultimate villain of the piece - Blake Fielder-Civil. Amy is a young, bright singer just beginning to forge her way in the music business under the novice management of Nick Shymansky - who comes across as an endearing if bumbling presence in Amy’s life. Then Blake comes along. Blake has since denied that he was responsible for the later turbulence of Amy’s life, but the evidence presented in the documentary paints their relationship as disturbingly volatile - a case of mutually assured destruction. We see photographs of her in a London park with him, worryingly skinny, her shorts falling down her bare-boned pelvis. Then he leaves her for his ex girlfriend. This is considered to be something of a breaking point by her old friends. She is discovered in a state of crisis - drunk, bulimic and filthy. They book her into rehab - but her father insists that she is fine. A recurring theme within the documentary is the impossibility of forcing someone who does not want to recover to give up substances. This is the first instance - and it's a pivotal one. From her initial breakup with Blake came Amy’s astonishing ‘Back To Black’ album - but Nick is not sure that it was worth what followed. He believes that she should have gone to rehab then and there, and wishes that he and her friends had convinced her to. “I think that was a moment we lost a very key opportunity...she wasn’t a star, she wasn’t swarmed by paparazzi. We could have just fucked Back To Black off...She’d have had a chance to have be dealt with by professionals before the world wanted a piece of her”, he says.
Fame And Decline
But Back To Black is released - an outpouring of her trauma and pain after Blake leaves her. And success swiftly follows. Suddenly, Blake is back on the scene. He films their lips as they kiss. There’s something disturbingly voyeuristic about these scenes - but worse are the concert scenes in which she is frenetic, slapping at her face, tugging at her shorts while the crowd’s mood turns ugly. Blake’s voice speaks calmly of how he introduced her to crack cocaine and heroin. She is sent to rehab - but Blake insists he goes with her. One of her doctors states that he did not want her to get clean, because then she would leave him and "the gravy train" would end. She goes through damaging cycles of recovery and relapse. At the Grammy’s, after winning a much-coveted award, she tells the stalwart Juliette that “This is so boring without drugs”. She’s hounded shamelessly by the media.
Amy And Mitch
Much has been made of Blake, but if this documentary has a villain, it’s Mitch Winehouse. He has since hit out against the documentary, but in all fairness it never explicitly demonises him, and allows him to tell his own story. We see Amy struggling with constant harassment by the press and paparazzi - and we see Mitch continually inviting the media into his clearly very sick daughter’s life. While she is in St Lucia, trying to escape from media pressures, Mitch brings a camera crew to film her. He insists that she have her photograph taken with some tourists, despite her evident distress at having her privacy invaded. He persuades her to continue with a tour which she clearly dreads. Ultimately, she is bundled into a plane while passed out drunk, and wakes up on a tour she does not wish to do. The drugs and alcohol which ultimately kill her are seen by her as a way out - a way in which to get people to stop demanding things of her. It's a terrible, tragic situation - and one which Mitch seems immune to. The final chapters of Amy’s life have a ring of inevitability about them. There’s a brief resurgence when she gets an opportunity to turn to her true passion - jazz - but the industry swiftly demands that she continues with the old, painful, money-making material. We all know the end of Amy’s story, and it’s hard to watch - but nobody who has witnessed this poor, talented, exploited woman’s journey will be able to switch off without that final closure.
Have you watched Amy? As always, comments are welcome
Great write up! This doc broke my heart. Really well done.ReplyDelete
@Courtney: Thanks, yes, heartbreaking to see someone with her talent die so young. She could still be making albums today.Delete
I've been seeing a ton of docs lately thanks to TCFF but I haven't got around to this one. I'm still curious to check it out despite my unfamiliarity w/ the subject matter. Nice review Chris!ReplyDelete
@Ruth: Amy is #9 on Rotten Tomatoes TOP 100 DOCUMENTARY MOVIES, hope you get to see it soon. As with the director’s previous Senna (2010), it's captivating without much interest in the subject matter.Delete
I saw this too and it haunted me for a while. Didn't know that his father didn't agree with this doc, but it is understandable that he felt that way. I think some people can born with talent, but handling the fame and pressure is another thing. Amy was fragile and she could've won grammys and tame the world, but it is a shame how her life end.ReplyDelete
@Andina: Haunted me too. Yeah, Amy’s father was a bit unsympathetic, at least in the documentary. Apparently he was unhappy with how he was presented in the doc. Probably the father wasn’t business-minded all the time. Handling the fame and pressure is tough, for the family and parents as well.Delete