Amy – A heartbreaking look at a musical legend

Whether you’re a fan of Amy Winehouse’s music or not, it can’t be denied that she had one of the best voices in the business. It also can’t be denied that her life story at the height of her fame was one filled with tragedy, up until her death in 2011 when she was just 27 years old. Drug and alcohol addiction, an eating disorder, bad relationships: the media, and the paparazzi who constantly hounded her, were very eager to make her problems public at every turn. Yet despite all that we saw splashed about on the front page, there was still an unknowable nature to her – a secrecy that surrounded her up until her final moments, and that still surrounds her today. With his latest documentary, Amy (2015), director Asif Kapadia hopes to unravel this mystery by taking an in-depth look at her music, her life, and in turn also tries to answer the question of why she headed towards self-destruction.

Amy (2015)

Through the use of home videos, film of her performing, and behind-the-scenes footage, Kapadia’s documentary builds up an intimate portrait of the singer alongside interviews with the people closest to her. Using a basic, linear structure he begins by looking at her early years, from a lively child messing about on camera, to a teenager starting to explore her own songwriting abilities, before moving on to explore her success as a chart-topping singer, and then finally delving into the darker aspects of her later life. While this structure might not be particularly ground-breaking, it is Kapadia’s interview technique here that truly makes Amy interesting. Instead of the usual talking heads other documentaries use, Kapadia simply uses the interviewees’ voice-overs, rather than cutting away to see them talking. This means we are solely focused on Amy throughout the documentary, rather than the people in her life – a simple method that in turn makes it all the more gripping and moving to watch.

The beauty of Kapadia’s documentary also lies in his use of the never-before-seen footage of Winehouse, both of her earlier years and her time at the height of fame. Video of her in the recording booth or passionately writing out the lyrics that she so poured her heart into are fascinating to watch, as is earlier footage of her eagerly unleashing her astonishing voice on anyone who will listen, captivating whole rooms in the process. It is also a joy to hear her singing again, especially in the footage of her performing live and in the earlier, jazz records that she made before her more popular songs.

Amy before fame...

While you might be forgiven for thinking Amy would be a sorrowful, sombre documentary due to the inevitable conclusion of Winehouse’s story, for the most part it focuses on the happier moments in her life – again something that sets it apart from other documentaries. You really can’t help but smile at footage of her on the road as she promotes her first album, or of her bold, honest attitude during the interviews that she so hated doing. And one brilliant behind-the-scenes moment of her watching The Grammy Awards via satellite link when her idol, Tony Bennett, suddenly walks out on stage, will have you laughing-out-loud at her perfect star struck reaction.

Yet the real power of Amy is in its ability to switch so fervently from these funnier times to the sad at a moment’s notice. Even the above clip at The Grammys ultimately regresses to the bleak when we see it from another angle, as told more truthfully by one of Amy’s best friends. The film also does not shy away from her drug and alcohol addiction, starkly looking at the darker times in her life in order to better explain what happened to her. Through mixing these funny moments with the sorrowful, Amy is not only all the more memorable, but all the more perfectly represents the singer herself as well, who those close to her say had the ability to laugh and joke, even during times of pain.

Amy Winehouse performing...

Despite us all knowing how this tragic tale will end, Asif Kapadia keeps Amy gripping with his intriguing documentary style, never-before-seen videos, and performance footage of her that is as captivating as it was when it was first filmed. Kapadia’s documentary wisely not only focuses on the sad times in her life, but also the funny as well, allowing us to truly understand more about the singer and her beautiful personality. Many people are finding this a controversial investigation into Winehouse’s life and career, but I think it offers a fair assessment of Amy and the people closest to her – people who often controlled her when she didn’t want to be controlled. I must admit that I’d never been a particular fan of hers at the time, having only really heard her more popular songs. But after seeing this, I am compelled to seek out more of her work, especially her earlier jazz records which I knew nothing about. A raw, intimate portrait of an all-time great singer, and as such it is a definite must-watch.

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~ by square-eyed-geek on July 31, 2015.

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