Directed by Asif Kapadia, who made 2011’s BAFTA award winning Senna – a film about Brazilian Formula One racer Ayrton Senna – Amy follows the career and death of British musician Amy Winehouse. Kapadia is a skillful director, and he has made a generous film that treats Amy with respect here. Amy follows Winehouse from the very beginning, from the moment that she is just about to be signed, through her early career and eventual rise to fame. This film does what you would expect, telling a reasonably familiar story, certainly the story that we all knew already Amy Winehouse personified: she is hugely talented but depression drives her to drugs and death comes all too soon.
Almost all of the film is meticulously crafted from home videos and archival footage. While people who knew Winehouse are interviewed, we never see these interviews, only hearing their voices overlaid on top footage of Winehouse, donated by those close to her, or shots of London. These are the voices of her oldest friends, her former manager, rehab owner Chip Somers, various bodyguards and people from Island records. We hear from people close to her, the people in charge of her, even her father, Mitch Winehouse, a famously problematic figure in her life who would later distance himself from the project saying that it represented him badly. Winehouse’s ex-husband, Blake Fielder’s, deep, sinister voice is also included, assumedly from interviews that he consented to the use of for the film. This is surprising considering that he becomes a villain of the piece, her drugged up partner in crime, unwilling to properly allow her to enter recovery lest his own drug supply (funded by Winehouse) dry up.
The film offers up a close reading of Winehouse’s lyrics, which is one of the more interesting filmic attributes employed by Kapadia. Just as then boyfriend Fielder breaks up with her and gets back with his girlfriend, we see Winehouse begin to record one of her biggest hits, ’Back to Black’ (We only said goodbye with words/I died a hundred times/ You go back to her/And I go back to black). This happens throughout the film: major life events are linked up to the songs she wrote about them, revealing the raw emotionality of her music. However, at times the lyrics displayed on screen seem a touch redundant – there is something juvenile about the font choice, perhaps.
Much of the film is dedicated to her life not long before her death focusing on her a few of her last years in which her crack cocaine use and eating disorders were ruining her health. In all the old interviews we hear Winehouse is adamant that being famous isn’t her goal and that she just loves the music. A common line amongst the famous, really, but it’s easier to believe when you are watching footage of just how difficult it was for her to leave the house, and how being so famous complicated everything just that much more.
It was interesting to see a film made about a woman like her, a woman who really wasn’t very nice, who was loud mouthed and who could be mean. Winehouse is fully formed throughout Amy, she is fully realised. It constructs an image of Winehouse as someone who was vibrant, bold and sharp, forming her as this ethereal creature – a jazz singer amongst the pop music, a voice out of time. Kapadia goes to great lengths to show off just how naturally talented Winehouse was, and how pure this talent was. In her life, Winehouse’s personal demons always seemed to overshadow the music itself, but a the close reading of her lyrics, and footage of her in the studio recording hits like ‘Rehab’ reminds us of how she really was just a great musician. I liked Amy Winehouse before walking into the film, but I left shocked by just how unique she really was. As much as it is a dark story about the relentless nature of addiction, it is also a deep celebration of her music, music that is undeniable. Those who loved Amy Winehouse will want to see this film, but any who really love music will come away with something, too.
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