“Amy,” a behind-the-scenes look at the rise and fall of the late British singer Amy Winehouse, should put filmmaker Asif Kapadia on speed dial for anyone looking to produce an archive-heavy documentary about an iconic figure. The “Senna” director digs deep into the popular myth surrounding Winehouse — that she’s another singer who lost control of her own life when fame and drugs overtook her — and finds a much deeper story.
Who can ever forget the footage of the singer drunk on stage and refusing to perform in Belgrade on what turned out to be her last public appearance on a stage? Winehouse’s most famous song “Rehab” is all about not seeking treatment for addiction. As such, while it’s easy to empathize with her story, her struggles have been largely simplified by their reflection in popular culture. Two hours in the company of Kapadia’s heartbreaking documentary change all that.
The movie starts in 1998 with Winehouse in Southgate. At the age of 16, she’s already in a jazz orchestra and clearly having fun. The cigarette in her hand hints at emerging rebelliousness, but Kapadia first shows the witty, affable side of Winehouse, before fleshing out the more sour notes — such as the trauma she experienced when her father, Mitch Winehouse, left the family home when she was nine years old. In one of the sound bites of the interviews conducted with her taxi driver dad, he admits that he was having an affair from the time Winehouse was 18 months old and would avoid the house on a regular basis. As for her mother Janice, she’s unable to control her daughter’s outgoing nature and cedes control to the singer’s grandmother, who passes away in the midst of Winehouse’s rise. In one telling bit of footage, Winehouse chides, “You should be tougher mum, you’re not strong enough to say stop.”
Kapadia has done a brilliant job of coaxing friends and family to broadcast some of their own private footage. In doing so, the film develops an intimate window into Winehouse fundamentally different from her celebrity. These home videos have been mixed in with archive footage from interviews and television shows. The new material includes over 100-plus interviews, but no talking heads. The voices play out over the footage, enhancing the immersion into Winehouse’s past.
Along with Winehouse’s parents, the principle supporting figures of the story are her first manager Nick Shymansky, her childhood friends Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, as well as her wayward husband Blake Fielder-Civil, whom she married in 2007 and divorced in 2009. But the most surprisingly introspective interviewee is Yasiin Bey, the hip-hop artist formerly known as Mos Def, who was a friend of the British singer after they met at the Urban World festival in 2004.
The first section of the film highlighting Winehouse’s rise shows her getting a record deal with Island, buying her first flat with the proceeds of her first album “Frank” and giving an vivacious interview on Jonathan Ross’s popular talk show. Everything else is a downward spiral. Former Winehouse colleagues suggest that it was when she bought a house in Camden that her condition started to change for the worse. It’s there that she’s seen hanging out with an entourage of local singers, such as Kate Moss’s notorious ex-boyfriend and Libertines frontman Pete Doherty as well as Blake Fielder-Civil, with whom she cheated on her then boyfriend.
Drugs became a major part of her life. Winehouse was so off the rails that her friends and manager took her out of London to encourage her to go into rehab in November 2005. The film shows how the singer hung on her father Mitch’s every word while he remained visibly ignorant to her plight. She told her friends, “I’ll go if my father says I have to,” and when daddy says “no, no, no,” she refuses to go. With unsettling footage from the recording of her hit sophomore album “Back to Black,” it’s suggested that if Winehouse had gone to rehab after wrapping the album, she may have saved herself. The movie lingers in these recurring “what if” scenarios while ominously foreshadowing the singer’s eventual death.
“Amy” manages to both celebrate Winehouse’s talent and bemoan her dour circumstances. Unsurprisingly, in the run-up to its Cannes premiere, Mitch Winehouse and Reg Traviss — Winehouse’s partner at the time of her death –have argued that the film provides an unfairly biased perspective of its subject. Mitch argued that he only meant the best for his daughter, alleging that a scene in which he turns up in St. Lucia with a reality TV camera crew — while Winehouse was attempting to get clean — only showed part of the story. Traviss, meanwhile, has argued that in the last two years of her life, when he was together with the singer, she was much happier than the documentary claims.
But when considered in the context of the narrative presented in “Amy,” these arguments seem fairly moot. It would be wrong to ascertain that Kapadia has sought to scapegoat anyone while exploring the years leading up to Winehouse’s death. Instead, he assembles a collage of bad influences – her parents, the drugs, and her unstable relationship with her husband, during which she wanted to ape everything he did. The media pressure (some of whom involved morbid jokes at her disposal) didn’t help — nor did, in a more abstract sense, her own inner demons and self destruction. To that end, Kapadia makes it clear that nobody was solely responsible for Winehouse’s problems. On the night she wins her Grammy, she takes a friend aside and says, “This is boring without drugs.” The greatest tragedy in “Amy” is the singer’s complicity in her demise.
Kapadia leaves it up to the audience to determine whether Winehouse’s situation could truly have gone another way. Whether he has or hasn’t captured the true essence of the singer may require further debate, but what’s beyond question is that “Amy” is an extraordinary, powerful work.
“Amy” opens it in New York and Los Angeles on July 3, and nationwide July 10, 2015.