The opening scene of this film contains some archival footage of a fourteen year old Amy Winehouse singing “Happy Birthday” to a friend – her voice so developed, so mature, soulful, pure and jazz-like, that you almost can’t believe it’s a very young woman singing. It’s the perfect introduction to Amy (2015, dir. Asif Kapadia); the story of her life, from youth until her tragic death at age 27, the story of her career as it grew and grew, and the staggering deterioration of her health and mental health as her substance addiction escalated beyond control.
I am sure everyone already knows the Amy Winehouse story – an amazing singer with an abundance of natural talent and a troubled personal life. Everyone saw the paparazzi photos of Amy wandering out on the street looking drunk or high on something, and there was a lot of negative media attention that openly made fun of her; having little to no understanding or insight into the experience of addiction. But not everyone knew the personal pain behind that media attention and public persona. Amy goes quite a far way in giving us some context to her life, her journey to fame, and her own perceptions of family life which contributed to her life choices, and most significantly, her rocky partnership with one Blake Fielder-Civil.
The construction of this documentary is quite genius, as there is constant archival footage plugging the story along, with a few talking head interviews, and a lot of voice over. With the majority of the story being told via voice over rather than talking heads interrupting the flow of the footage, you really get the full context of what was occurring in Amy’s life, as you hear about it but also directly see archival footage of events occurring. For example, you see Amy walking and stumbling in the street with paparazzi flashes blinding her, her friends talking about her increasing substance and alcohol use after she moved to Camden. Later, you see a failed concert in Serbia with her managers and promoters discussing how she wanted to move further with her career and record more, with her motivation to perform her old material dwindling as time passed. You also get to see the heartbreaking physical comparison between a young healthy woman, and a woman ravaged by substance addiction. My overall feeling is that this is the perfect way to construct a documentary such as this, a documentary about someone who had such a huge media presence with cameras following her every move.
On a personal note, I would highly suggest watching this in private or in the comfort of your own home. The sheer inevitability of what comes at the end of the film, and the comparison between Amy’s healthy glow at the beginning and her greying physical presentation at the end, is so devastating. I watched this on an airplane and had a bit of a cry in front of everyone in my direct vicinity. The film is so frustrating in that you know what is going to happen at the end, given the media circus surrounding its subject, and you can see points in time where intervention (such as rehabilitation) should have occurred but for whatever reason failed to occur. You will undoubtedly come out of this film with a healthy disdain for certain key players in Amy’s life and the part that they played in her story.
Ultimately, Amy is more than a little bit devastating. It is a portrait of a highly complex woman, a portrait of the ravages of extreme substance use and addiction, and of the destruction that can come with a complex life in the public eye. As a warning, there are some scenes where you don’t see any drug use but you see the behaviours and actions of someone who is extremely substance affected, and that can be quite disturbing to watch. The film almost acts as a warning in that regard, going into detail regarding the physical and mental effects of the substances consumed. All throughout the film, however, is the evidence of someone who was clearly a bit of a musical genius in terms of singing, songwriting and composing – and the ultimate takeaway from Amy is a sense of loss, for the enigmatic person and the amazing music that could have been made in her future. You will never listen to her famous song ‘Rehab’ in the same way, ever again.
Watch the trailer here.