In 2003, 20-year old Amy Winehouse told a journalist she didn’t think she would be famous. “I don’t think I could handle it. I think I’d go mad.” The singer had just released her debut album, Frank, a collection of mostly original jazz songs. The album was critically-acclaimed, and enough to get her noticed, but, the British artist naively thought that she’d be able to focus only on making music, and not pay attention to the demands made on celebrities.
The multi award-winning documentary, Amy, about the late singer’s rise to fame and fall from grace, is finally being screened in South Africa during the European Film Festival currently underway at the country’s four Nouveau cinemas. Director Asif Kapadia conducted over a hundred interviews with Winehouse’s friends, family, and executives at record companies. Much of the film consists of unseen footage of Winehouse, like home videos and amateur videos taken at some of her gigs and during studio recording sessions. And unlike many other documentaries, the only face-to-face interviews featured are ones Winehouse did before her death, and some from her father. For the majority of the film, Kapadia uses voice overs of the people he interviewed, placing the visual focus solely on the subject.
Amy opens with a grainy home video of the singer as a 14-year old. The early footage shows a cheeky, flirty, and fun pimply-faced teen, before her trademark black eyeliner. The film is not merely a retrospective biography, but goes back in time to try and determine what caused the singer’s downward spiral into substance abuse, toxic relationships, and her inability to deal with fame. The viewer is shown many pages of Winehouse’s notebooks, in which she wrote intensely personal poems that later became the mature and insightful lyrics to some of her most famous songs.
As footage of some of her pre-fame gigs shows, the North Londoner’s star power was undeniable, with her unique and rich voice that has been dubbed by many one of the best her generation and compared to some of the greatest figures in jazz. As one executive at Sony described her, “she was an old soul in a young body.”
The documentary asks a number of questions. Could the decision by Winehouse’s father, Mitch, to abandon his family when she was nine have led her to poisonous and tumultuous romantic relationships? Was it her humility and aversion to fame that led to her death, as she was hunted by a merciless paparazzi? There are a chilling number of prophetic comments the singer made in interviews as she was propelled to stardom. After Stronger than Me won an Ivor award in 2004 for best contemporary song, a journalist asked Winehouse why she didn’t cite attaining number one hits as a goal, as so many other singers do. Her reply: “Success to me is having the freedom to work with whoever I want to work with, to always be able to just fuck everything off and go to the studio when I have to go to the studio… The more people see me the more they’ll realise that all I’m good for is making tunes so leave me alone and I will do it I will do music. I just need time to do music.”
This, of course, never happened. The runaway success of her second and final album, Back in Black, in 2006, took her to a place she did not want to be. The brutal honesty of her songs – Back in Black is about her breakup with future husband Blake Fielder-Civil – appealed to audiences tired of superficial pop.
“I write songs because I’m fucked up in the head and I need to put it on paper and then write a song to it and feel better about it. Have something good out of something bad.”
The album won multiple Grammys, but the spotlight that came with it, did more harm than good.
Kapadia explores Winehouse’s on-off relationship and marriage to Fielder-Civil (who introduced her to heavy drugs), her eating disorders, and her father’s decision to push her into touring when she wasn’t well. A surprisingly large number of shocking photos exist, showing a painfully thin Winehouse taking drugs, or crying, mascara running down her face. The film is moving in its portrayal of a supremely talented but troubled and vulnerable young woman, whose pain was not addressed adequately by those around her.
While Amy has been well-received by critics and audiences alike, Winehouse’s father slammed it for misrepresenting him, and casting him in a bad light. Fielder-Civil, who spent time in jail during his marriage to Winehouse, has also rejected the insinuation that he was “some Machiavellian puppet master.” But the fact remains, that one of the music world’s brightest stars was found dead in her Camden flat in July 2011, aged 27. The viewer of Amy is left with the question: who was responsible for this tragedy?
Director: Asif Kapadia
Rating: 5 out of 5