Watching Asif Kapadia’s documentary ‘Amy’ can feel painfully familiar – not only because the sad life of Amy Winehouse is such a fresh story, but also because of how frustratingly common her rock and roll tragedy is. The difference here is that Winehouse grew up in an era in which so many people casually shot her life on video as it unfolded that Kapadia was able to piece together a disturbing little film using footage of the real events, making the doc such a raw viewing experience that it’s often hard to keep your eyes on the screen.
Kapadia’s documentary begins with candid footage of a 14-year-old Amy and her friends hanging out that stops suddenly when she unleashes her remarkable voice. It’s clear that the kid has talent. By the time she was 16, she’d found a manager who believed in her long out of fashion form of jazz singing. Nick Schmansky was only 19 himself when he decided to give managing a go, so he was able to shoot plenty of footage of them goofing off in backrooms and cars while Winehouse’s career slowly bloomed, even capturing an acoustic record company audition that nabbed her a record contract on the first try. Her rise was quick and her talent huge, but obviously it was all heading bad places.
Even before her career began, Amy’s broken home life led to drugs and promiscuity with dangerous consequences. It’s what gave her painfully autobiographical lyrics such sting and made her seem like an old soul in a young body. When early fame and success hit, those troubling tendencies landed her in underground London rock clubs where she met her future husband Blake Fielder-Civil, who introduced her to all the cool kids, along with crack and heroin. Ironically, those dark times led directly to her breakout hit “Rehab,” so her professional success and person failures were inexorably tied. Even when she cleaned up in time to sweep the Grammys, she pulled aside a longtime friend and chillingly stated, “It’s boring without the drugs.” No matter how much promise her future held or how many people desperately tried to force her onto a clean path, there was only one way for the story to end. Sadly, you already know it.
Though the subject matter is obviously quite different, director Asif Kapadia approaches ‘Amy’ through the same remarkable filmmaking techniques as his breakthrough picture ‘Senna‘. Kapadia assembled hundreds of hours of interviews with people who were close to Amy personally and professionally, yet almost never relies on talking-head visuals. He lets their voices guide the story and uses a combination of archival footage both professional and amateur to define the film. Just the image of a young, pimply and promising teen Amy in joyous home video devolving into a raggedy mess depicted by paparazzi cameras shoved in her face can be devastating to behold. Even more telling is the footage of her enabling father visiting Winehouse on a tropical trip designed as an escape, only for him to bring along a Reality television crew and all of her troubles with him. The fact that the father even tries to justify the behavior to Kapadia in a candid interview makes it hurt even more. It’s no surprise that he’s tried to distance himself from the doc since the premiere. He should.
Yet while Kapadia is able to powerfully depict Winehouse’s downfall through her friends’ words and horrifyingly honest imagery, he also makes a strong case for her talent. Filling the soundtrack with Winehouse’s hits as well as unreleased tracks, Kapadia frequently takes time to highlight her most poignant lyrics through text on screen. It’s clear that her talent wasn’t merely in making classic jazz/pop feel contemporary, but also in how she mined her deepest demons for her most meaningful lyrics. The most painful truth in a film filled with them might be that Amy Winehouse never would have been the artist she was without her troubles, nor would she have died so young without her success. It’s a harsh irony that, combined with brilliant documentary technique, gives the movie a resonance beyond the usual “Behind the Music” tales of woe.