Featuring: Amy Winehouse, Mitch Winehouse, Mark Ronson, Blake Fielder
Director: Asif Kapadia
Movie website: au.eonefilms.com/films/amy
Australian release date: Thu 16 July
Verdict: Gut-wrenching stuff that reveals the person beneath the persona and lays bare her prodigious vocal talent. A tragic story that will tie you in an emotional knot and haunt you for days.
As with their acclaimed 2011 doco Senna, director Asif Kapadia and his filmmaking team tell this story of another live-fast-die-young superstar, British diva Amy Winehouse, without the use of conventional voiceover/interviewer narration, creating a composite picture through Winehouse’s music, recent and archival footage and the often heart-rending testimonies of friends, family, lovers and music industry insiders.
The chronology jumps back and forth throughout, and while the slightly shambolic effect is in keeping with the chaotic life of the subject, this non-sequential structure occasionally interferes with the flow and makes the film hard to follow. On the flipside, there is great pathos in contrasting the younger, vibrant, zany Winehouse with the terminally self-destructive drug and alcohol-dependant bulimic that emerged as she began to flail in the quicksand of her unwanted fame and celebrity.
Images of innocence and promise (eg: a grainy mobile phone video of teenaged Amy messing around like any kid of her age as she celebrates a birthday with friends, and early auditions in which recording company execs pick up on her astounding vocal and writing talent) are rendered poignant indeed interspersed with footage that tracks her rapid descent into addiction, degradation and desolation.
Her tragedy is largely of her own making, but the film leaves no doubt that there were villains in the mix. It is difficult to avoid concluding that her unrequited yearning to be loved, which was perhaps her fatal flaw, leading her time and again into doomed relationships and the compensatory comfort of alcohol and drugs, was largely attributable to her selfish, neglectful, exploitative father, Mitch.
Absent for much of her childhood, he re-entered her life to capitalise on her fame and fortune. A measure of his values may be gleaned from the backstory of Winehouse’s biggest hit, Rehab, and her famous hook line “they tried to make me go to rehab but I said, ‘No, no, no.” This is not, as might have been widely intepreted, an ironic send-up of her image as a hopeless drunk and stoner, or a finger in the air to the media who turned her alcohol and drug abuse into headlines. There was no such art to it; turns out the source of the lyrics was her father’s appalling advice that she not go to rehab when all those who cared for her were urging her to do so. His concern was that in taking time out, she would be missing lucrative gigs and that the momentum of her career might falter.
The music industry and media have something to answer for, also. One of Winehouse’s refrains throughout the film is that she is only a singer, that “making music is all I’m good for”, but the profit-driven industry that her muse had led her into was programmed to make her a star, the property of the public. It is painfully evident that she detested the spotlight and the intrusion of the media into her private life. She remarks at one point that she would give it all away (ie: her success and its trappings) just to be free to walk down the street unnoticed.
There is no scene more shocking or heart-rending than that of a forlorn Winehouse on stage at one of her final concerts, out of her head and staring blankly into a huge and increasingly hostile audience, refusing or unable to perform. If there was a moment when the artist in Winehouse drew a final breath, this is it. It’s achingly sad and hard to watch.
One of the great aspects of the film is the centrality of her music, which for her was a type of chronicle of her life, and the purest expression of who she was as a person. She mainlined her lyrics direct from her experience of life, and this authenticity was a feature of all her songs.
If only Winehouse had listened to those who understood and respected her for the artist and person she was. One of her idols, Tony Bennett, remarks that she was above all a jazz singer with an extraordinary vocal talent, and that jazz singers should perform only to small venues. In being packaged as a wild rock chick by the entertainment industry, she was sold short artistically and projected on to a mass audience probably more drawn to her notoriety than her music. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that had she been channelled in directions more appropriate to her style of music, she may not have been chewed up and spat out the way she was.
Regardless of your taste in music, this is a gripping doco that reveals the person beneath the persona and lays bare her prodigious vocal talent. It’s gut-wrenching stuff that will tie you in an emotional knot and haunt you for days.
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