‘Amy’ the documentary: The ultimate eulogy to Amy Winehouse
Emrah Güler - ANKARA“I don’t think I’m going to be at all famous. I don’t think I could handle it. I would probably go mad.” Confident of the supposed non-appeal of her brand of music to the pop market, Amy Winehouse muses midway in British filmmaker Asif Kapadia’s documentary “Amy,” currently on screens in the U.K., coinciding with the four-year anniversary of her untimely death on July 23.
Knowing very well the shape of things to come, these words haunt the audience for the rest of the documentary. Those three simple sentences are powerful enough to cap the heart of “Amy,” a sad and saddening film, without any need to sentimentalize or cash in on its subject matter.
As a singer, songwriter and all-around tabloid favorite, Amy Winehouse’s death at the age of 27 was pop culture news that rocked the media four years ago this week. With only two albums to her credit in the last decade, Winehouse was a one-woman force in the British music, single-handedly opening the way for contemporary female soul musicians.
Having proven himself as a revered documentary maker with 2010’s “Senna,” a look into the life and death of Brazilian Formula One champion Ayrton Senna, Kapadia delves into another globally-followed tragedy of the 21st century. At first glance, “Amy” follows the familiar structure of the biography documentary, a linear and chronological narrative of the life of its subject matter up until her death, chronicled mostly by interviews and archive footage.
Arduous and extensive research
While by definition “Amy” may follow a familiar structure, it becomes clear from the first minutes that it will steer away from any expectations and preconceived notions of a celebrity biography. The film begins with home-camera footage of a 14-year-old Winehouse singing at a birthday party with long-time friends Juliette Ashby (a singer and songwriter as well) and Lauren Gilbert.
The footage is one of many never-before-seen ones that take most of the screen time. Kapadia makes sure that the film is not a compilation of footage of Winehouse in awards shows and TV interviews that could easily have been found on YouTube. The unseen footage is accompanied by voicemail messages and demos of unheard tracks, impressive products of arduous and extensive research.
It was made known during the film’s world premiere last May at Cannes Film Festival that Kapadia conducted over 100 interviews for his documentary. Two dozen of these dominate the film, that include Ashby, Gilbert, other friends, managers, producers, musicians, Winehouse’s parents Mitch and Janis, as well as the bad-boy ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil.
The interviews are incorporated into the film as voice-overs, accompanying images and relevant footage, never steering the film away from Amy Winehouse’s mesmerizing face. Close-ups of Winehouse’s face, even with poor quality personal home video shots, is a recurring image, giving time to take in the vulnerability we have all read and second guessed about but never truly had the chance to experience.
Winehouse’s voicemail to husband Blake, at that point in the full throttle of a toxic, destructive relationship, soaking with desperation and loneliness, is one of those heart-breaking moments. Same with when she confesses to a friend that the event she is attending is “so boring without drugs.” In another scene, she dismisses fellow singer Dido, oblivious to sounding PR-friendly in an interview.
‘You Hurt the Ones You Love’
“Amy” slowly and delicately unfolds the media pressure that succeeded in turning a bubbly, filthy-mouthed, carefree woman into a female celebrity insecure about her image. The complicity of tabloids in Winehouse’s death, that distributed images of her in her worst, wasted, abused and pencil-thin, and how lightly it was taken, often a shared joke, is the message in the second half of the film, if there is any message to be taken.
But, in fact, Kapadia is intent on laying the ground of his work on the exhaustive material he shares, thus distancing himself from a blame game, and letting the audience decide who is to take the weight on Winehouse’s journey to self-destruction. Amy’s father, Mitch, and Blake are the obvious frontrunners if anyone is to blame, with the Winehouse family publicly criticizing the film as “misleading.”
However, “Amy” becomes the ultimate eulogy for Winehouse, with its unfaltering focus on her music and her love of music. In life, she bared her soul and broken heart to millions through such classic songs like “You Know I’m No Good” and “Love is a Losing Game.” The confessions through her songs on her troubled love life takes on a new shape with the inclusion of previously unheard songs like “We’re Still Friends” and “You Hurt the Ones You Love.”
The scene where she meets her idol, the legendary jazz singer Tony Bennett, to record a duet days before her death sticks with you long after the film. Here, Amy Winehouse, the celebrity, is replaced by a trembling young woman, in awe of good music and good musicians. Here, in Bennett’s words, Amy is one of the jazz singers who “don’t like 50,000 people in front of them.” Here, she is a musician, in her own words, who “wouldn’t write anything unless it was directly personal” to her.
Recently, the Guardian published photos of Amy Winehouse taken by photographer Karen Robinson in 2003 and 2004, bringing a rare glimpse into the brightness and darkness that defined her short-lived public persona. “In 10 years, I’m not gonna be doing this. I’m gonna be looking after my husband and our seven kids,” one caption quotes Winehouse from 2003. She died on July 23, 2011. “Amy” is a chance to celebrate that fresh-faced bubbly young girl, who loved music more than anything.