Film of the Week: Amy
In a film fairly heaving with poignant, even bitterly painful images, one stands out in a singular way. It’s a shot of the late Amy Winehouse sitting on stage, seemingly in a world of her own, when she’s supposed to be standing up and singing her guts out. The occasion is perhaps the most catastrophic, indeed humiliating experience of her professional life: her notorious 2011 concert in Belgrade at which she ran onstage, appeared to collapse, then doggedly refused to perform, while angry fans chanted, “Sing! Sing!” at her. This, it’s suggested in Amy—Asif Kapadia’s documentary about Winehouse’s life, death at 27, and short, brilliant career—is the moment at which the singer lost her ability to be the Amy that her fans wanted. “She really didn’t care any more,” comments her keyboard player Sam Beste in an interview excerpted in voiceover.
Yet the image that Kapadia shows us here is not necessarily of someone who doesn’t care, but rather seems to be of someone who steadfastly refuses to do what’s demanded of her. Seen hunched up and gazing straight to camera, Winehouse is smiling. Yes, it’s probably the addled smile of someone who has lost her bearings, but it also looks a lot like a smile of triumph—the smile of someone who has successfully committed self-sabotage, broken the spell that keeps her prisoner of so many people, of their demands, and of their cameras.
In fact, Winehouse did not simply refuse to sing in Belgrade—she did actually get through a 71-minute set, although it was a shambles that infuriated concertgoers. You wouldn’t know this from Kapadia’s film; even so, his presentation of the show comes across as a powerful rhetorical statement, rather than as a significant distortion of the facts. Kapadia has indeed been accused of distortion, notably by the late singer’s family, and in particular by her father Mitch Winehouse, who does emerge rather badly here.
But then so do many people, and so do the music industry, the media and—ultimately, and perhaps most damningly of all—the public that laps up gruesome crash-and-burn fame stories like Winehouse’s. Whatever manipulations of fact Kapadia may be responsible for—and I don’t think he’s significantly more manipulative than any documentarist with a strong narrative line to pursue—they are ultimately mitigated by the fact that he implicates the audience which is lapping all this up in amazement and shock. We may weep for Amy, gasp at the tragedy of a young charismatic talent rubbed out so early—but the film suggests that anyone who ever gawped at the horror show of her decline, and that’s surely most of us, is to some degree complicit in her ruin.
Starting out with 2001’s dazzling The Warrior, then pursuing a slightly shaky fiction path on his next two films, Kapadia reinvented himself triumphantly with Senna (10)—a film that established him as a serious-minded storytelling documentarist, someone able to scan countless hours of pre-existing material for the revealing chronological narrative hidden within it. The story that he has sculpted in Amy from masses of material, supplemented by 100 hours of interviews, extracted in voiceover only—material taking in footage shot since the late Nineties on cellphones and camcorders, or gleaned from YouTube and elsewhere—is a classic rags-to-riches-to-ruin tale, tracing the path of a person whose self-destructive tendencies were apparently inscribed into her life from an early age.
The film is big on prescient irony—but then so, it seems, was Winehouse herself. In an early interview with The Observer, she says: “I don’t think I’m going to be at all famous. I don’t think I could handle it—I think I’d go mad.” Her second album, Back to Black—the stratospheric hit that both made and, it’s suggested, destroyed her—is this story’s point of no return. Winehouse was already seriously into drugs at that time, and her friends tried, as her hit song goes, to get her into rehab. Here, Mitch Winehouse is heard saying: “I said to the managers, she doesn’t need to go into rehab, it’s fine.” Mr. Winehouse has claimed that Kapadia has at some point cut the words “at that time,” although this may seem a moot distinction. Amy seems to have been surrounded by people who had an investment in saying that at one time or another, the singer was fine—that she was in suitable shape to pursue the career that was earning many people a great deal of money and/or prestige. The point is made that the period before Back to Black’s release would have been the perfect moment to help her break her addictions. Once real stardom set in, bringing the obsessive, oppressive, distracting attention of paparazzi, and accompanying waves of public adulation and derision, not to mention the all-consuming demands of the entertainment business, it was too late.
A number of people emerge badly here, some worse than others. Amy’s manager, Raye Cosbert, says that, at a particularly delicate moment in her decline, he had done all he could do, that it was now up to her family to help her. But the film doesn’t especially point the finger at Cosbert, who simply comes to stand for the music industry itself, which is notorious for not sufficiently protecting the young and often vulnerable people who keep its wheels turning. As for the singer’s mother, Janis Winehouse, you feel that Kapadia is sympathetic to her as someone who seems to have been out of her depth right from her daughter’s childhood. A small, lost-looking woman, Mrs. Winehouse comes across as scrupulously honest about her failings, which the young Amy was apparently only too aware of: “I found it difficult to stand up to her,” she says, pointing out that her daughter would chide her, “Mum, you’re so soft with me.” She also talks about the fact that she and her husband should have acknowledged in Amy’s teens that she was bulimic; perhaps they didn’t know enough about the condition, but Mrs. Winehouse certainly makes it clear that a great deal of denial was at work.
As for Mitch Winehouse, who separated from his wife when Amy was around 9, we never understand quite how he later came back on the scene to become a major controlling force in his daughter’s life—and a very visible media figure with a jazz singing career of his own. He most incriminates himself—or certainly makes himself intensely unsympathetic—in a sequence that takes place during Amy’s retreat to St. Lucia, a six-month stay during which she escaped from drugs, only to replace them with alcohol. Winehouse senior joined her there, accompanied by his own film crew for a TV program he was making. At one point, Amy makes an acerbic remark, understandably enough, to a British couple who awkwardly ask for a photo with her; Mitch berates her for being ungracious, she protests about being told off on camera, he tetchily signals to his cameraman to stop filming. It’s just one of those family spats that don’t normally damn the people involved, but here it fairly makes you squirm; no one likes seeing a grown adult told off by a parent. The person who emerges worst, needless to say, is Blake Fielder (or Fielder-Civil), the Camden Town rock-scene gadabout long notorious as the Nancy Spungen to Amy’s Sid (and if Amy had done a Sid and actually offed the guy, you imagine plenty of people in her circle would have cheered). Kapadia clearly doesn’t like the man any more than anyone else does—the juiciest bit of visual rhetoric here is a still close-up of Fielder looking horribly sweaty. Fielder may have been as damaged and as vulnerable as Amy, but he never comes across as remotely sympathetic; Kapadia conceivably had access to mountains of footage showing Fielder to be a sweet, devoted spouse, but what we see is a man who always contrives to be as much in the limelight as she is, feeling her up for Terry Richardson’s camera, or possessively putting his arm around her as they negotiate swarms of paparazzi. In one of the film’s nastiest moments, he’s behind the camera, filming her in one of her retreats from the world, infantilizing her horribly as he tries to coax her to sing “Rehab.” This film won’t enhance Fielder’s popularity; in the months following the film’s release, he should probably avoid walking down any dark alleys late at night, in Camden or elsewhere.
For all the tragedy, Kapadia resoundingly celebrates Winehouse’s joie de vivre. Even if you’re not mad about her music—and I’ve usually never managed to get beyond the intense mannerism of her vocal style—she was not only a singular, unusually intense singer, but a blazing personality. The film opens with Amy in 1998, at a friend’s 14th birthday, singing “Happy Birthday” in perfect, precocious Marilyn Monroe style; talk about songs of innocence and experience. She’s seen radiating cheek and sexiness on the Jonathan Ross TV show; wryly signaling her indifference as a fatuous interviewer bangs on about Dido, of all people; and has two moments of wonderful, childlike awe when faced with her idol Tony Bennett. Most remarkable of all is a sequence that suggests her talents went way further than anyone, as she welcomes a friend to Majorca with a bang-on, hilarious routine in character as a Spanish domestic; all I could think of was, if only the right director had put her in the movies (why not Almodóvar, after all?), she could have been a superb actor.
Because of its lack of voiceover narrative or obvious editorializing, Amy comes across in some ways as a sober, objective account of its subject’s life. It clearly isn’t that, and some rhetorical flourishes stand out quite glaringly, especially when her media hounding is involved. Kapadia tends to milk the disorienting effects of paparazzi crowds, visually and sonically, to show us how the assault must have felt to Winehouse; he even lays a “slamming prison door” sound effect on the shutting of what seems to be just an ordinary everyday door. And there’s a moment that you is perhaps a little bit too Hammer horror, but is nonetheless chilling: a shot of Amy shyly coming through a door into a corridor is broken down frame by frame, until suddenly, Fielder looms up behind her, apparently reflected in a mirror, like a resurgent ghoul.
A more conventional juxtaposition intercuts footage of Amy and Blake with her singing “Love Is a Losing Game,” backed only by guitar; obvious as it is, the device is immensely effective, appropriate because we know that Winehouse was singing directly about Fielder in many of her most painful songs. What’s more, she’s giving a superbly direct, delicate performance, freed of all the neo-Motown instrumental trimmings and of her usual gymnastic melismas. Like not a few moments in the film, it’s simply heart-breaking.
Arguments will no doubt continue to rage, especially in the singer’s family and professional circles, about whether or not Kapadia is distorting or selectively representing the facts. But one way or another, Amy comes across as an intelligent, empathetic, and very moving account of a formidable talent and a radiantly original personality, however damaged. It certainly doesn’t strike me as excessively manipulative. I’ll tell you what would have been manipulative, although you almost feel it would have been justified: if Kapadia had run the end credits over Noel Coward’s “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington.”