With her short life and even shorter career, Amy Winehouse was a star that was never able to tell her story. We all know the Amy who had drug problems, canceled shows, stumbled through the streets with her jailbird husband, and was constantly on the cover of every celebrity gossip magazine in the stores. Director Asif Kapadia shies away from simply rehashing what we know and making an E! True Hollywood Story out of his documentary. Kapadia’s Amy tells the thrilling and devastating story of the woman behind the publicized chaos.
Kapadia hit the jackpot by choosing Winehouse as his subject. Her friends and handlers were avid amateur videographers, recording nearly all of her early career events as well as many private, behind-the-scenes moments. Using these and many clips from fan, news, family, and paparazzi footage, Kapadia has created a fantastic walk-through of who Amy was and how she ended where she did. The film opens with a bubbly young teen hanging out with her friends at a birthday party. The friends tunelessly sing “Happy Birthday”, kidding around with each other, then they all fade away as Amy opens her mouth to finish the song. It’s incredible. At fourteen-ish years old this beautiful, healthy, playful teen has a voice like Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan. Through home videos we are shown a troubled teen, nearly uncontrollable, who just wanted a mother and father who would pay attention to her and tell her NO.
From here we see Amy’s fast ride to fame. In the beginning she’s a girl with an incredible relationship with her music, playing gigs for fun and shocking jazz snobs with her wealth of natural talent. She was completely satisfied with being a local jazz singer with a dirty North-London twist, playing in bars and clubs. After her first album debut, managers and producers were jumping to get her signed to bigger labels, put her on tour, and pushing her to move out of jazz and into mainstream music. Enter the destructive boyfriend. In the telling of Amy, there are so many moments where the audience wants to reach out and tell her to stop because those around her weren’t doing the job. If only she hadn’t met her boyfriend, if only she hadn’t left jazz for mainstream pop, if only she had a father who told her to go to rehab and didn’t treat her like a cash cow, if only people had helped her with addiction and eating disorders instead of forcing her back on tour regardless of her objections – maybe Amy would still be with us now. What is entirely devastating is how many times she told everyone that she did not want to be famous – that she didn’t think she could handle the media and paparazzi, that she would never want to be in the spotlight that way, and that she just wanted to make her music. Despite her hair, makeup, and outrageous clothing, Amy was a humble woman who truly despised the attention.
Kapadia uses excellent technique in piecing the footage together. There is a part where Amy is just starting to get her life together after breaking up with her boyfriend and becoming very popular, and Kapadia shows us a slow motion clip of Amy exiting a basement apartment. There’s no music or voice-over, just Amy coming up the stairs. She moves slightly to the side and we see who’s behind her: it’s Blake Fielder-Civil, that no-good ex-boyfriend of hers. These nuanced moments drive the documentary, giving us a taste of what it must have felt like to be one of her close friends watching helplessly as Amy began to spiral. It’s plain to see with this new insight that all Amy wanted was to disappear and knew exactly how she wanted to achieve that goal.
There are only a few clips where Kapadia puts anyone on screen besides Amy, and those come at the end. He took all the interview segments of family and friends and created a narrative over video of Amy to tell the story. Amy’s music has an enormous presence in the film, as it should. It’s funny how you hear a song a hundred times but, until you know what happened in her life just before the song came out, you have no idea how real the subject matter was for her. This happens frequently in the film – a close friends narrates a terrible event in Amy’s life, then immediately cuts to her singing while captions emphasizes the words of her song. Kapadia shows us that while Amy didn’t always speak up in real life, she was laying her truth out for all to see in her songs. We were all listening but no one actually heard her.
Amy is one of the best celebrity documentaries I have seen in a very long time. Kapadia was able to get a balanced truth out of the footage and put it together in such a way that it humanizes Amy, letting you find bits of yourself in her story, and making you feel as if she were one of your dear friends. It also makes you want to do what I’m about to do right now – download her entire discography.
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