Film Review: Amy is gut-wrenching
Just as he did with the frankly magnificent Senna, British filmmaker/director Asif Kapadia takes a story of which everyone knows the conclusion, and still manages to make it utterly engaging.
The generally accepted persona of Amy Winehouse – the tabloid version of her – is a backcombed trashbag who was consumed by her drug and drink addiction. And while there is obviously truth in that, this documentary peels away the layers to give a more rounded impression of who the singer really was.
There are no talking heads in this film. Its narrative is carried forward by an incredible amount of camcorder footage, concert/studio recordings and photographs, along with interviews acting as voiceovers. Within about thirty seconds of the documentary starting, it becomes clear that we are in the presence of an astonishing talent. Wobbly video footage shows a bunch of teenagers mucking about on some stairs. One of them is a Jewish, long faced girl who bursts into a rendition of Happy Birthday that is like none you’ve every heard. It’s like her voice is summoned from someplace truly heavenly, rather than from the lungs of this apparently ordinary kid. And so begins the recounting of the all-too-short life of this dichotomous character.
Amy Winehouse was common as muck. In the nicest possible way. She spoke with a strong Norf Lannnndan accent, got tattoos when she was still in school, liked to sit around and smoke weed all day and go to the pub to play pool of an evening. But, at the same time, she had that voice. That voice. Not only could she deliver an astonishing vocal but – and this is one of the most interesting aspects of the film – she was incredibly sharp, witty, articulate and wrote really strong lyrics. They were poetic yet anchored firmly in reality. Pretty much everything she ever wrote referred to a deeply personal and affecting moment in her life.
The early part of the story deals with her rise to popularity. She began with a strong network of friends and she genuinely never believed she would be famous. She repeatedly says in the film that she doesn’t want it. That it would drive her mad. But she is happy to be playing to small crowds of punters in smoky venues and even happier to be writing and recording.
The movie then starts to document where it all goes wrong. It does so without an authorial voice but instead just puts the facts on the screen in the form of personal footage. There are moments you can pinpoint as being the contributing factors to her downfall. Forging relationships with certain individuals, being forced to play festivals when too ill, not going to rehab at a time when she was anonymous enough to have done so without the media ripping her apart…
There are several people who come away from this looking particularly bad. Her parents for instance. Her mother is pathetically weak and, as anyone who has encountered him before will know, her father is awful, egotistical and entirely self-serving to the point where his advice to his daughter was dangerous. Like telling her she didn’t need to go to rehab, for instance (“My daddy thinks I’m fine”). Her parents’ wilfully ignoring her teenage bulimia is another example of how she was always doomed.
And then there is her ex-husband, Blake Fielder. What a no-good, blood-sucking degenerate. With her support network of friends gradually being ebbed away, she engaged in a horribly destructive, drug-fuelled relationship with him from which she would never recover. She became a shell of a woman. A sack of bones with vacant, loveless eyes. Nothing like either the impish North London upstart or the soulful goddess she really was.
The film also shows just how intrinsic the paparazzi were in her demise too. These parasitical scumbags… seagulls following the trawler… ensured her entire unravelling played out through a never-ending strobe of flashlights. All she wanted was to be left alone and to exorcise her demons through her music. But that didn’t suit the media’s agenda. They wanted the smeared make-up, barely conscious Winehouse, not one of the world’s most gifted musicians.
So it’s good that this film finally goes some way towards redressing the balance and showing the real woman beneath the beehive. While peppered with moments of humour and levity, and of course reminding us of that stunning voice, Amy is, ultimately, a deeply sad experience. It is though, a must see. This lady deserves to be remembered the right way, not as a wasted junkie, but as a funny, gentle, talented soul who died far, far too young.
It is truly heartbreaking and gut-wrenching to witness how it all went wrong.
Amy screened at Sydney Film Festival this weekend and is released generally on 2nd July.
Review by Bobby Townsend.