It is perhaps understandable that many will be put off watching Amy, given both the potentially depressing subject matter and controversy surrounding this riveting documentary on singer Amy Winehouse from Senna director Asif Kapadia. Yet although Amy is, at one level, necessarily bleak, it is also a celebration of an extraordinary one-off talent. It also fearlessly points the finger of blame in the direction of individuals and agendas that perhaps unwittingly paved the way for her eventual tragic death.
As with Senna, Kapadia eschews talking heads in favour of using archive footage culled from a variety of sources, including home movies, behind-the-scenes recording studio footage, television appearances, concerts and clips from websites; as well as photographs, handwritten documents and other material that all paint a fascinating, sympathetic picture of a truly tormented musician wrestling with her demons whilst producing some fantastic music. As someone who was familiar with her music but knew little of the story as told by the tabloids, I found the Amy Winehouse depicted here to be a true artist; immensely passionate, amusingly outspoken, and thoroughly likeable albeit tragically broken as a result of issues arising from her family background (especially her father).
Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay Amy Winehouse is this: normally when someone mutters in derogatory terms about manufactured pop music (Amy takes swipes at the likes of the Spice Girls and Justin Timberlake), I dismiss such comments as intolerably snobby. After all, just because someone didn’t write a song, doesn’t mean they can’t perform it well. To me, that is like saying Lawrence Olivier is a bad actor because he didn’t write Hamlet. Yet here, when Amy bemoans the lack of artistic integrity in commercial music and expounds on how none of it really connected with her so she decided to create her own music, it comes across as endearing and genuine rather than snobby.
On the evidence presented here, Amy genuinely did not care for fame, but just wanted to make music. Many famous pop stars claim they aren’t interested in fame, but their actions speak otherwise. In Amy’s case, I think she really meant it. As a result, I found myself warming to her more and more throughout the documentary, and not just because I’m a sucker for tales of struggling artists. By the end, I unashamedly confess I was in tears.
At times, watching Amy is like watching a car crash in slow motion. I mean that in a good way, but certain sequences make for very uncomfortable viewing. The merciless paparazzi and pressures of living in the public spotlight whilst in a downward spiral of self-destruction through drugs and alcohol are laid bare for all to see. Furthermore, scenes such as the one where Amy’s father Mitch removes an unconscious, smashed-off-her-head Amy from her sofa, bundling her onto a private jet to perform at a venue at which she refuses to sing, provoke furious anger. No wonder Mitch didn’t want this film seen. He does not come off well at all, to put it mildly. Nor does Amy’s on/off boyfriend Blake, who introduced her to hard drugs and subsequently served a prison sentence.
Early in the film, Amy speaks of how she doesn’t want to be famous, because she doesn’t think she’d be able to handle it. One cannot help but think she would have been happier in her beloved jazz clubs where she started out, prior to superstardom. Eventually, she admits that she would give back her talent if it simply meant she could walk down the street without being hassled. A cautionary tale for sure. But on the other hand, then we wouldn’t have her now classic album, Back to Black. Ultimately, the implied message here is that had Amy Winehouse had people around her who looked out for her best interests rather than simply riding on her coat tails, she could have got the help she so desperately needed, and we might have enjoyed her music for a long time.