The objective of a documentary film is, by definition, a motion picture intended to document some aspect of reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction or maintaining a historical record. Such films are supposed to be objective, detailing a subject’s plight through life’s various stages, from the unsavoury to the redeeming. Any film goer will tell you that documentaries rarely achieve that true sense of neutrality in tone and thematic representations. The wondrous, breathtaking, and visceral film Amy, directed by Asif Kapadia, is a lesson in master filmmaking. It’s also a lesson in storytelling.
The film has the damaged and gritty late chanteuse as its specimen on full unflinching display in all of her guts and glory. You don’t have to be a fan of Winehouse’s jazzy/girl group-esque vocal stylings to make the commitment to watch the clearly wounded creature storm the screen, her frail frame impressively withstanding self-inflicted physical pain and trauma from a hard life of drug and alcohol use. You keep expecting her to simply break in half at times, but she keeps on going, much like how her music will continue to do as years pass.
The director’s panache at giving Amy Winehouse the proper send-off she so deserves is moving and emotional. It’s really difficult to review a film where the story of such a lovely, confused woman is it’s core. Winehouse is presented as just a regular girl with an immense vocal prowess that catapulted her to stardom at only 22 years old – even a few years before that in her native UK. The clever interplay of home videos paired with the media’s evisceration of Winehouse’s persona close to her death plays like a riddle: how can the world actively participate in one person’s breakdown while simultaneously praising them for their clear talent? I guess it’s the age-old paradox of fame: the world has a great time building you up, but it has an even better time breaking you down.
Winehouse was an addict. Kapadia does not mince words, or in this case, images, in driving this message home loud and clear to the viewer. But what is so fascinating is that Winehouse is never depicted as a victim or a brat. She was a smart, witty lady. Her earlier years showcase her propensity to smile and please a crowd with her wit and candour. As years pass, and as the film professes, Amy begins to lose her battle with the demons in her life, both physical and mental, ultimately leading her into a painful downward spiral in her eventual, untimely death at 27.
Throughout the film, with this review on my mind, I was mindful of any negative commentaries made by those interviewed about Amy. There were none. The common sentiment was that she was a kind, normal girl, who simply wanted to sing in jazz clubs and in other intimate settings where she could share her music. To hear Winehouse say, in surround sound, that writing was a way to keep her demons at bay was gut wrenching. Witnessing her frequent, unsuccessful attempts at rehabilitation are difficult to watch because you want her to get better, but you know that her fate will not allow it.
The director has not made a film where Amy’s short, destructive life is a glossy testament to the singer’s accomplishments. There are no self-serving montages showcasing the numerous awards she has globally won. There are two specific, particularly moving scenes that truly demonstrate Amy’s sincere and humble personality. One, in which she wins the Grammy for best album, is a joy to watch unfold. The surprise and happiness in her face (while on a clean spell) transmits from the screen to your heart. Second, in which Amy is singing with Tony Bennett, is magical. She is like a child, starstruck at meeting her idol, wanting to do the best job she could to not anyone down. Heartbreak. Ok – maybe there’s a third. When she lays down the vocals for her soon-to-be signature hit Back to Black in the disparate studio with Mark Ronson looking on will give you goosebumps. I guarantee it.
The film is not about placing blame. It’s not about pointing fingers at what caused Amy to become a drug addict. There is no guilt blamed on her husband or on her father (albeit implied). Permeating the film is the central theme of self-awareness and the quest for happiness, and all of the other crap that falls in the way of that simple goal attainment. Amy’s talent is timeless, her soul unmarred by her penchant for extreme living. Winehouse was authentic and true, and the film perfectly captures this understanding perfectly.
Amy is exquisite. It, and she, are doe-eyed but fierce, stylish but vulnerable. Each subsequent scene that unfolds presents life and its intricate, unclear relationships that every viewer can relate to. Because, you see, Amy was just a person who wanted to be happy and to be loved – after all, isn’t that what we all want?