Amy Winehouse’s rise to fame and subsequent decline are well-known to those who follow pop culture. Her sudden death in 2011 after releasing two renowned albums resonated throughout the musical community worldwide. Now, almost exactly four years later, Asif Kapadia’s new documentary Amy offers new insight into the life of the singer. The film premiered in wide release this week.
Watching Amy’s rapid rise to stardom while battling eating disorders and drug and alcohol addictions under the brutal eye of the paparazzi is a harrowing experience made even more so by the startling intimacy of the film. Much of the documentary’s story is told through home videos, photos, interviews with people close to Amy, and even old voicemails that Kapadia has masterfully edited into a cohesive, compelling narrative. However, a slight sensation of voyeurism hovers over the whole film as the audience is given unlimited access to Amy’s private life through these intensely personal mediums. While she was alive, Amy defended her right to privacy, filing injunctions against paparazzi who dogged her. Watching the film, it felt a bit crass that we get such a clear view into her most precious moments, though the documentary builds a sincere and empathetic portrait of the talented musician.
Amy’s story starts with a teenage Amy chattering candidly with a camera held by her close friends. The home movies capture her hanging out en route to her gigs, at her early shows in small bars and clubs, and playing pool in bars. Young Amy is clearly aware of her own talent and demonstrates a great deal of self-awareness. In this early footage, we see a confident young woman without any celebrity aspirations, someone who is driven forward by a strong desire to express herself through music. Early in her professional career, shortly after the release of her debut album Frank, an interviewer asks Amy whether she believes she will become famous and how she would handle her fame. “I don’t think I could handle it,” she says. “I’d go mad.”
Amy Winehouse jamming on guitar, as seen in home videos featured in the new documentary.
Much of Amy’s strength comes from this unselfconscious telling of the story of her earlier years, a part of her life left largely unexplored by the media as her superstardom exploded. At one point, Amy intimates that she did not find current popular music particularly relatable. She tells the camera that she “wouldn’t write anything unless it was directly personal.” In case there was any doubt that her lyrics come from a deeply personal place, the point is driven further home through careful song selection throughout the documentary—the soundtrack serves nicely as another narrator. The musical selection is at its most powerful during the portion of the film detailing the creation of Back to Black and the album’s roaring success. When we are given a detailed account of Amy’s relationship with on-again, off-again partner Blake Fielder-Civil, referred to by producer Mark Ronson as “tempestuous” and “extreme,” each song on Back to Black comes across as a diary entry as Amy reflects on her relationship and its rocky ending. Particularly telling are the lyrics to “Rehab” in juxtaposition with an interview with Nick Shyman, her close friend and then-manager, as he recounts how he pleaded with her to go to rehab before her drinking became more of a problem. She agreed to go if her dad thought she had needed help but he said she was fine and ought to go on tour. Amy was telling us her story all along. Her lyrical honesty may have been in part responsible for the press’s unhealthy obsession with her private life. Tabloids paraded every scrap of her personal life they count hunt down, including paying an ex-boyfriend for stories about her sex life.
Overall, Amy is a stunning, beautiful, and deeply personal, if somewhat voyeuristic, portrait of one of the greatest artists of a generation. All the interviews from people close to Amy give a candid, honest feel to a film that could easily have felt contrived or salacious. Kapadia places the blame for Winehouse’s death from alcohol poisoning on no one—this is a refreshing case of a documentary with no villain, only an examination of a life that ended too soon. That framing lets Amy’s friends and family to speak for themselves and leaves the interpretation of their stories to the audience. However, neither Amy’s parents nor her ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil come out looking particularly good. If anyone is condemned by the film, it is the media who hounded Amy in the last months of her life. Her final days are presented in a dizzying blur of photos and news stories that painted her as a trainwreck that people morbidly loved to watch. Amy ends as abruptly as the life of its subject, leaving behind a hollow impression and an uncomfortable question: Is the same brutal spectatorship that drove the media frenzy that so tortured Amy what drives us all to go see this movie? Or can we finally leave her in peace?
Watch the trailer for Amy:
Related Reading: We're All Mad Here — Mental Illness and Celebrities