I’ll admit that when I was younger, I was one of those people who knew nothing about Amy Winehouse except for her controversy in the media. I was one of those people who just passed her off as just another crazy, tabloid heavy pop singer like Brittney Spears or Miley Cyrus. It was only after she died that I realized, wait, some of her music actually really good. She was a troubled singer and songwriter whose life was ruined by fame. If you still hold the previous opinion of Amy Winehouse as some sleazy, attention seeking hack, you won’t after watching Asif Kapadia’s new documentary Amy, a personal and heartbreaking presentation of Winehouse’s talents and struggles in her unsettlingly short life.
When you see a movie like this, you expect for it to be at worst, a harmless and forgettable by the book look at a celebrity’s life. At one point or another, you’ve been flipping through channels and you’ve somehow stumbled upon a 50 minute, mediocre documentary about a famous historical figure. They usually contain the interviews, the public domain music and the feeling afterwards of having just watched the much less insightful, visual equivalent of a Wikipedia article. You might walk into this movie rightfully expecting the same exact thing you’ve seen for years on the History Channel or on NFL during the off season but what you get here is far less interested in telling the complete, straight forward story of her life but rather the story through the perspective of Winehouse as well as her friends and family.
Unlike most documentaries of this sort, the movie doesn’t have a narrator like Morgan Freeman that is guiding you through the story. Instead, Kapadia uses hours upon hours of interviews he received from various people as well as past interviews that were done with Amy Winehouse before her death as narration for the film. And unlike previous films that feature interviews, he doesn’t show these scenes but rather just uses the audio from these interviews to help tell the story. The audio plays over footage of everything from her childhood to her concerts to her recording sessions. The movie isn’t restrained by the sense of an all-powerful person telling you everything that happened and all of the footage the director uses feels like a glimpse into her personal life. These changes that Kapadia makes make a big difference and make the film feel a lot more human and intimate.
You’re getting the story of Amy’s life in these small recordings that were made with her throughout her life whether it be when she is recording her Back to Black album or when she is at rehab. You get a lot of time face to face with her and you get to see her transition from her point of view and this allows for the movie to carry a larger, emotional significance than those documentaries that show someone or through photographs and monotone narration. You watch as she goes from this lively, cheerful artist to this numb, deeply damaged mess that is in no control of her own life and it’s truly powerful to experience because it’s all being done through these videos that show her when she’s being herself and not some artificial, cardboard cutout of Amy Winehouse that is meant to manipulate or shock viewers on the E channel at 11:40 on a Tuesday.
Aside from what has already been said, the movie also reminds me of the damage people can do when they thoughtlessly gang up on one person online or in the media for being out there or flawed. The movie goes to great length to show the ways in which the public mocked her or stripped her of her privacy and played a major part in her psychological collapse. The press constantly followed her and people everywhere joked about her various issues until it was too late. I don’t think the film sets out to portray people like Jay Leno or Graham Norton as terrible people for making fun of her when she was at low point but it does serve as a reminder that sometimes we caught up in things and we forget about people’s feelings even if we didn’t mean to really cause damage to them in the first place. It’s okay to make jokes about Justin Bieber or Rebecca Black, but there’s still a point where we go from making fun of a song or something they did to making fun of a serious, personal issue they might have or jokingly telling them to go kill themselves. It’s somehow okay to have this behavior when we’re a part of a larger group but often we disregard the way someone feels until the outcome is irreversible. I don’t want to come off as preachy or heavy handed in this review but this is an idea that is very important in the film and it’s something that was a disturbingly large problem for Amy Winehouse.
Amy is a slow, intimate and moving look into her life and it invests a lot of time in making you feel like you’re there with her, watching as she goes through her rises and falls until her ultimate passing. Any biographical documentary can read a short article on a person’s life and find generic, cheap, sentimental music that they can play over stuff. It takes real guts to go deeper than that and search for them in their friends and family and in the footage that they left behind. This is just what Amy sets out for and succeeds at.
Release Date: 7/3/2015
Directed by: Asif Kapadia