Director: Asif Kapadia
US Release Date: 3 July 2015
Directed by Asif Kapadia, Amy is a deeply affecting documentary about the life and career of British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse. The documentary begins with a home video showing Winehouse at a friend’s birthday party as a young teenager and ends with her death by alcohol poisoning in 2011. Consisting primarily of archival footage and photographs, Amy paints a layered and often remarkably intimate portrait of Winehouse.
Like so many biographical documentaries before it, Amy makes heavy use of interviews with an assortment of people who knew or worked with its subject. However, where some filmmakers would choose to show footage of the interviewees talking, Kapadia includes the interviews (which are with Winehouse’s friends, family, former lovers, colleagues, and more) in voiceover only. This allows Kapadia to keep images of Winehouse and of her handwritten lyrics onscreen regardless of whose voice is being heard; by forcing viewers to continually focus on Winehouse, Amy keeps things personal while working to increase the film’s emotional efficacy.
Amy largely succeeds in its efforts to tell Winehouse’s story in a way that will leave its viewers not only informed, but moved and haunted as well. For the most part, Kapadia presents his subject in a sensitive manner, and he does not make the mistake of sensationalizing Winehouse’s life. Instead of cheapening Winehouse by exploiting her untimely death, self-destructive tendencies, and various illnesses for their shock value, Kapadia seeks to honor her by using her story to call attention both to her talent and to the many forces that worked against her. If anyone leaves Amy upset that she didn’t live long enough to make another album, I would encourage them to watch the film again. Kapadia does not make the mistake of pretending to fully understand Winehouse—but he does ask viewers to consider how much better off she might have been if one of so many things (including Back to Black) had not happened.
Many who see Amy may have laughed as countless talk show hosts and media outlets cracked jokes about Winehouse’s substance abuse and appearance several years ago. But those same people are sure to cringe when they hear those same jokes within the context of Kapadia’s film. Such moments—in which Winehouse is not present but is ridiculed for her addiction—are absolutely harrowing, and they—like so much of Amy—are a strong reminder of cinema’s power to (as Ebert said) “generate empathy.” Kapadia’s documentary can’t bring Winehouse back to life or make it possible for viewers to truly understand her, but it does instill empathy in them. In this case, that is enough.
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Amy is a biographical documentary, a tragedy, and a tribute all wrapped into one. It’s also a cautionary tale. Kapadia doesn’t shame Winehouse for any of her personal choices or illnesses—which include depression, bulimia, alcoholism, and drug addiction—but he does lament the fact that she was (for whatever reason) unable to get the help and support that she needed. People can and do self-destruct, but Amy also makes it clear that there were many around Winehouse (including many who did not even know her), who may have been able to help her (or, at the very least, to hurt her less).
In telling it’s tale of an individual’s life and death, Amy brings a number of large and far-reaching issues to the forefront. One of things that it claims is partially responsible for Winehouse’s struggle is our celebrity culture. In fact, Amy uses Winehouse (yes, uses) and her death to shine an intense and damning light on the way that our media and society exploit, consume, and abuse celebrities (and just about anyone else that they can get their hands on). At the same time, the film also uses Winehouse’s story to remind viewers that mental illness, eating disorders, and addiction are not funny. Trivializing someone’s experiences or using someone’s poor health for a laugh does not do anyone any good. Winehouse wasn’t cured of addiction by being turned into a caricature by those who did not know her, and we have no reason to believe that she ever would have been. Conditions like those that Amy suffered are serious, and the stigma that our current culture encourages is extremely damaging. People shouldn’t need a documentary about a member of The 27 Club to realize any of this, but that’s neither here nor there.
Winehouse’s struggles with depression, bulimia, and addiction don’t change the fact that she was an extremely talented artist—or a flawed human being. What they do mean, is that she was often more vulnerable than most. A celebrity culture that turns people into tabloids is incredibly destructive, and so are all the demons that Winehouse had to deal with. Fame didn’t cause Winehouse’s problems, but it certainly didn’t help. Neither did her mother, who ignored her bulimia. Neither did her father, who wasn’t more concerned with treating her addiction. Neither did her boyfriend, who enabled her drug use. And neither did her manager, who pushed her to tour. And neither did she. The list is quite devastating, and it does not seem to end.
One of the voices in the film claims that no one can really be prepared for the sort of fame that Amy acquired. This is probably true, and it’d be nice if our society would take a long hard look the way we view celebrities. At the very least, we could definitely use some much stricter laws on the paparazzi. However, viewers of Amy must also wrestle with the fact that a great deal of the footage and the images in the film come from the paparazzi and other similarly invasive sources. If such sources are responsible for so much of the material that makes up the film, then where does that leave us as filmgoers? By using such footage to provide audiences with a fuller picture of Winehouse’s life and to call attention to the role of an unsympathetic media in her suffering, does Kapadia undo any of the damage? Is that good enough? I don’t know, but I have a feeling that such thoughts will continue to give me reason for pause for quite some time.
Another thing about Amy that has left me somewhat uneasy is the issue of whether or not the film—by the very nature of its existence—cannot help but exploit Winehouse. The film focuses on her, and it frequently puts her lyrics on screen in an effort to give viewers the sense that she, through her art, has some sort of agency. But after I dried my eyes and left the theater, I was left with a lingering feeling that something was off. A sort of voyeuristic shame. I still can’t quite shake the sense that perhaps I shouldn’t have even been allowed to see Amy. Perhaps this sort of guilt is inevitable, especially given just how personal and private much of the film’s footage is. Or maybe the guilt is evidence that Kapadia’s film really has achieved some good. After all, Winehouse is a stranger. We have no right to invade her privacy or to judge her now that she’s dead, and we certainly didn’t when she was alive. But we did anyway, and so we deserve the guilt.
Though it’s not a huge problem, Amy does drag a bit in a few places. The film often uses static images—many of which are non-professional candids or photos taken by the paparazzi. Many of these images effectively add detail, life, and emotion to Winehouse’s story, but some of them don’t. On top of that, more than a few of them are allowed to remain on screen for quite a bit longer than they should have been, which produces a sort of awkward lull.
I am also unsure whether the film devotes quite enough time to exploring the depths of Winehouse’s talent or to praising her as an artist. Yes, Winehouse’s ability is self-evident, and yes, her deeply personal music (which is heard quite often in the film) is more than capable of speaking for itself, but I cannot help but wonder if Amy goes just a tad too far in its quest to show viewers all of the ways in which Winehouse was a victim. Winehouse definitely suffered, and her death was most certainly tragic, but that does not change the fact that she was (for a time) a survivor and acclaimed artist who achieved a great deal in a short amount of time. As much as I appreciate Amy, a part of me still wishes that Kapadia had found a way to balance these aspects of Winehouse’s story just a little bit better.
Amy is a beautiful, respectful, tragic, and appropriately quiet documentary. Kapadia takes his time telling Winehouse’s story, and the film does its best to give viewers a complete picture of the late singer. And yet, Winehouse remains inaccessible to us. We can shed tears for her loss and feel our hearts swell with anger as we see just how many ways both the individuals and the culture around her failed to properly react to her various needs and conditions, but we can never truly know her. If that bothers us, then perhaps we should seek to do something about the multitude of things that may have helped to speed her death.
Until Next Time
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It’s been a week since I’ve seen a movie oh no.