FILM REVIEW: Amy
The first few minutes of director Asif Kapadia’s Amy show a grainy home video made by a group of fourteen-year-old girls laughing and singing “Happy Birthday.” One of those teenagers is Amy Winehouse, and when the camera turns to focus on her, the other girls trail off, and Winehouse opens her mouth to deliver a rendition of “Happy Birthday” with the smoldering intensity of a veteran jazz singer moaning a torch song to a smoky bar. Winehouse was famous for a big voice that seemed to have a direct line to jazz idols like Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, and Billie Holiday; an “old soul in a young body,” more than one person intones in the film. It’s mesmerizing, and the footage of such a young person singing with the pain and experience of an adult is the perfect introduction to the woman that teenager would become.
Amy is the story of an artist defined and ultimately overtaken by her many dichotomies and dueling desires, leading to her tragically early death at 27 in 2011. Kapadia’s style as documentarian is well-suited to this kind of story; Senna, the director’s other feature-length doc about Brazilian Formula One racer Ayrton Senna, is similar in both approach and subject-matter. In that film and Amy, Kapadia adopts an unflinching gaze that rarely diverts from the subject, relying almost entirely on found footage and only occasionally adding scene-establishing location shots. Kapadia never cuts away to “talking head” commentary, opting instead to layer interviews and voice clips over home videos, still photos, public appearances, and performances. The effect in Senna and in Amy is eerie and engrossing; you feel completely drawn into the events of the past with no respite from their lives. In the case of Amy, you feel a sense of immediacy that’s striking and unnerving; Amy herself feels incredibly present and alive on screen.
This intense focus reveals the singer’s complex and often antithetical qualities without blinking. Kapadia depicts Winehouse’s fraught relationship with fame in lurid detail. She was a “pure jazz musician,” the legendary Tony Bennett claims, more at home in a club of 50 than a stadium of 50,000. Winehouse herself claimed in an early interview that she didn’t think she should be famous because she “couldn’t handle it.” “I’d just off myself,” she joked presciently. Conversely, Winehouse craved the access and freedom of fame, which would allow her to do what she wanted, personally and musically. That kind of ease, though, comes with the burden of public scrutiny, which found Winehouse when “Rehab,” the single off her 2006 album Back to Black, became an international hit. Kapadia shows the public’s fascination with Amy’s music and, later, her many vices in vivid tabloid shots of her stumbling out of clubs with bloody feet and smeared mascara. A series of startling scenes show the paparazzi scrum outside her home, cameras flashing and clicking with the intensity of gunshots. Seen through 2015 eyes, it’s a stark reminder of the intensity of proto-social media publicity, before “image management” was an imperative and a star could shut a scandal down with a few carefully worded tweets or a well-staged post on Instagram. The height of Winehouse’s fame coincided with with the years of Britney Spears’ “meltdown” and Lindsay Lohan’s initial fall from public grace. At a time when it seemed every star was very noticeably going or not going to rehab, Winehouse provided the perfect anthem, and sometimes an easy punchline.
Despite these scenes showing Winehouse’s discomfort with fame and increased substance abuse, the film also demonstrates her incredible wit, sense of humor, and prickly loveability. Heartfelt commentary from artists like Mos Def and Questlove reveal the deep respect other musicians have for her. She was repeatedly and adorably starstruck by her idol Tony Bennett. Winehouse was often hilariously unable to hide her true feelings; when an interviewer compared her to Dido, she looked at the camera with disgust and rolled her eyes. I laughed out loud at a particular gibe from the 2008 Grammy’s; as she listened to the nominees for Record of the Year on location in London, Winehouse disbelieving asked the room of Justin Timberlake, “His song’s called ‘What Goes Around Comes Around?’” Winehouse may have had a rocky relationship with her own notoriety, but there’s no denying her overwhelming magnetism and charisma. The camera loved her, and she obviously loved the camera, despite her reservations about fame. For early appearances, she quite obviously recycled clothing and wore the same dress to television interviews and awards shows. In a culture where stars like Beyonce and Taylor Swift have learned to flawlessly style and manicure their public lives, it’s almost shocking to see a singer so uninterested in crafting, or perhaps unable to craft, a finely-controlled image. Even Miley Cyrus or Rihanna, who has perfected her @badgalriri persona with every sneer and shrug, could take lessons in not giving a damn from Winehouse.
Amy is a must-see event for die-hard fans, casual listeners, and total neophytes. The film is exceptional and does important work fleshing out the woman behind the punchline she unfortunately and unfairly became in her final years. Mega-fans will be thrilled by the rare footage Kapadia has included. In one behind-the-scenes video that had me covered in goose bumps, Winehouse records “Back to Black” without audible musical accompaniment, her raw, rich voice the only sound. Unexpectedly, Kapadia adds the familiar backing track for a few bars, only to remove it again as Winehouse moans the final words. I was grateful that this performance and the others in the film have been subtitled, allowing me to appreciate Winehouse’s lyrical depth in ways I hadn’t before.
The film is a huge achievement for Kapadia, who’s wrangled his many video and audio sources into a cohesive and engrossing narrative that avoids canonizing or demonizing Winehouse. There are many ways to to justifiably feel about her, but I’d argue it’s impossible to watch Amy and leave without some appreciation for her staggering talent. Like the artist herself, Amy will leave you aching, enamored, and hungry for more, long after the screen goes black.
Amy opens this Friday and is showing at Cedar Lee.