Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015)
Amy is a brutal documentary about the initial triumphs and ultimate tragedy of the enormously talented British jazz singer Amy Winehouse, who died, in 2011, of alcohol poisoning at only 27 years of age. Blessed with a magnetically sultry voice and the ability to sing just about any kind of music – but cursed with the demons of insecurity and addiction – Winehouse rose to stardom over the course of five years, from the release of her first album, Frank, in 2003, to the release of her follow-up, Back to Black, which won five Grammys in 2008. British director Asif Kapadia – whose last feature documentary, Senna, in 2010, was about the Brazilian Formula One race-car driver Ayrton Senna – who also died young – has fashioned a harrowing no-holds-barred look at the rise and fall of a very troubled young woman whose genius and fame were no protection against the evil spirits – including self-serving family members and hangers-on – that plagued her.
To me, the movie felt very much like a horror film (Max Weiss, at Baltimore Magazine, wrote an excellent review in which she argued the same point); the first documentary horror film I can recall seeing. Little by little, we see possession – the twin devils of addiction and insecurity, exacerbated by sudden celebrity – destroy this great talent. Thanks to the participation of Winehouse’s first manager, Nick Shymanksy, Kapadia had access to many hours of video from Winehouse’s early singing days to the beginning of her breakdown (she and Shymansky parted ways when she didn’t take to his attempts to help her deal with her addictions), and the director uses the footage to show us his subject on- and off-stage. To round out this impressive archival material, Kapadia also edits in video from her friends: one of the very first things we see in the movie is Winehouse singing “Happy Birthday,” at age 14; already, she had impressive pipes.
Unusual for a biographical documentary, there are no traditional talking-head interviews. Instead, we hear the voices of the various actors in Winehouse’s life appear underneath moving images of them, with a lower-third title letting us know who is speaking, but never in a formal setting. It helps to make the film feel like a fly-on-the-wall cinéma vérité piece, even though it is clearly carefully crafted and shaped.
Indeed, Kapadia structures his story with great precision, and lays out a clear case against those who took advantage of Winehouse’s fame without offering her any protection: the biggest villain is, in fact, her own father. Not surprisingly, the family – even though they participated in the making of the movie – is now vocally opposed to the final product. Too bad. All the filmmaker does is allow them to be damned by their own words and actions. All one has to do is listen to the lyrics of Winehouse’s hit song “Rehab” to hear how negative an influence her father could be.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the film is how we see – towards the end of the story – how snarky and scornful the international press is in its coverage of Winehouse’s final year (and how many flashbulbs the paparazzi would subject her to!), when she is frequently drunk and dazed in public. They didn’t then have the advantage of having seen the film we’ve just seen. The movie should make us all think about how quick we are to judge the supposed moral failings of others. In the age of viral social media, we often verbalize opinions without regard to consequences. For sure, the media didn’t kill Amy (nor did her family, however much they didn’t help), but their callousness made her increasing isolation increasingly lonely. This powerful must-see film is a true nightmarish parable for our time.