Thursday, July 9, 2015
Last Friday, the British Urban Film Festival kicked off its summer season with a double feature at London's Genesis cinema. First up was a preview screening of Asif Kapadia's highly anticipated documentary Amy. The film documents the life of the extraordinary life of Amy Winehouse until her terrible death of alcohol poisoning on 23 July 2011.
On the one hand, the documentary paints an incredibly sad and moving picture. Winehouse's well-known story, where addiction and depression triumph over extraordinary talent, follows the blueprint of tragedy. As with his acclaimed documentary Senna (2010), Kapadia foregoes the use of talking heads and constructs the film from a wealth of archive material, home videos, photographs, television clips. Winehouse occupies nearly every frame of the film. As a result, the distance between spectator and subject is reduced significantly. Amy manages to humanise the singer in a way the tabloids and mass media never could (or wanted to).
Then there is the voice. That incredible voice. First heard from the mouth of a tiny British teenager at a birthday party, it was destined to conquer the world. "All I'm good for is making tunes," claims Winehouse in one interview and music, rather than fame, was always the ultimate goal. Huge crowds screaming her name were no improvement on small, intimate jazz clubs. Kapadia furthermore uses a simple but effective trick to convey the brilliance of Amy's extremely personal songwriting: as the music plays, the lyrics appear on the screen. We may have heard the songs hundreds of times, but now we are able to understand them even better.
Another of the film's main interests is the assignment of blame for the singer's downward spiral. Amy is never a completely victimised, but Kapadia identifies three main culprits. Father Mitch Winehouse has unsurprisingly complained about the film and he definitely doesn't come out of it well. When Amy escapes to St. Lucia to avoid the relentless media scrutiny, Mitch turns up with a reality TV-crew in his coat tails. Blake Fielder-Civil meanwhile is the Nancy Spungen to Amy Winehouse's Sid Vicious. Her on-off boyfriend/husband introduced her to crack cocaine before going to prison in 2009.
The third group of accused are the mass media, the unyielding paparazzi laying in siege in front of her house, the chat-show hosts making cheap jokes about her addiction and us, laughing at said quips. Here Kapadia, somewhat inevitably, has his cake and eats it. The mere existence of this all access, behind the scenes documentary undermines any argument that Winehouse's privacy needs to be respected. The film criticises the media circus surrounding the reluctant celebrity, but at the same time makes liberal use of the inquisitive paparazzi footage it is looking to condemn. Kapadia fails to address this contradiction, but fortunately his palpable affection for Winehouse rescues his film from becoming voyeuristic or gratuitous.