AMY had me glassy eyed both at its beginning and end. Such is the power and the tragedy inherent in exploring the life of an astoundingly talented artist whose time was cut so cruelly short, especially when we see the upsetting contrast between the vitality of their innocence and the extent of their eventual ruination side-by-side. The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long as they say.
Documentary maker Asif Kapadia’s style lends itself incredibly well to stories with vastly differing perspectives on tumultuous lives and events such as this, as he demonstrated previously with SENNA. Talking heads now bore me to tears through their over-use, so it’s refreshing to see this alternative style of filmmaking – extensive archive footage and photos with voiceover – increase in prominence. Winehouse’s father Mitch has very publicly condemned the film as a pack of lies, particularly in relation to the way he feels he is negatively represented. He also claims not enough focus is placed on Amy’s talent and success, and too much of the film is taken up by her self-destruction.
The representation of Mitch in the film is debatable – the key point in which he appears appropriates footage from a documentary he himself commissioned and presented, MY DAUGHTER AMY, where he took a camera crew out to the Caribbean where Amy was recovering from an overdose. Aside from this, his voice is mostly absent from the story, though he is nearly always hovering in the back of shot keeping a close eye on his daughter. I personally think Mitch is over-reacting here. I don’t doubt for a moment that Mitch cared deeply for his daughter, that he would do anything to make her happy. What I do think is that Mitch never fully understood Amy or what she actually needed to become healthy again. Kapadia isn’t blaming Mitch for Amy’s untimely death (if he blames anyone it’s her despicable ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil) but rather saying no-one could have helped her after she set out on a path of self-destruction to such an extent.
As to Mitch’s latter claim, it’s complete hogwash. The rare live performance footage and early demos showcase Winehouse’s talent sublimely. We probably don’t need the lyrics of the songs superimposed over these sequences as her voice conveys everything perfectly already, but otherwise they are must-see moments for her fans. What Mitch Winehouse wants, it seems, is a film that celebrates his daughter’s achievements and whitewashes her mountain of personal, mental and narcotic issues. That would be a pointless and dishonest exercise. A hagiography does no one any favours.
Amy’s sardonic sense of humour and openness comes through as well. Just look at her pout and struggle to keep her temper when an interviewer inadvertently compares her to Dido, or her schoolgirl giddiness when she finally meets and sings with her hero Tony Bennett. The moments where she’s just hanging out with her friends and bandmates and is just allowed to be herself are the real highlights of the documentary as opposed to the voyeurism of her self-destruction.
I don’t think we’ve ever had a documentary able to make use of such extensive archive material. We live in an age where everyone documents everything, so we’ll likely see a lot more of this in future. It really hits home the extent to which the press and the media destroyed Amy when you see the number of clips of her being hounded, and the ignorance of one pap telling an obviously clinically depressed woman to “cheer up” really makes your blood boul.
Now clearly Amy Winehouse drastically cut her chances of a long life through her heavy use of narcotics (particularly in the downtime between albums) and we can’t ignore that an addict actually needs to want help for treatment to work. Kapadia’s documentary veers from uplifting to downright harrowing, much like Winehouse’s life, career, and perhaps inevitable decline. Kapadia leaves it pretty open as to who to blame for the young artist’s death on 23 July 2011. He certainly doesn’t blame the family as Mitch has claimed, but rather points to the unfortunate combination of fame and a personality that didn’t take at all well to it. Most importantly, though, the documentary is one that celebrates the life and work of a gifted and affectingly flawed human being over mourning her. SSP