Asif Kapadia allows his camera to become an emotional confessional to his subjects in the profoundly moving Amy, a documentary portrait of another musical luminary prematurely darkened by a deep love deficit
Starring: Amy Winehouse
Directed by: Asif Kapadia
Running time: 127 minutes
MPAA Rating: Restricted
By Katherine Monk
When Amy Winehouse died at the age of 27 in July 2011, few people were surprised: She was already rock ’n’ roll cliché.
A seemingly curated sampling of substance abuse, rocky romances and a shattered childhood psyche strapped to the rocket of celebrity, Winehouse seemed destined to explode into the night sky with a dramatic, echoing boom from the moment she hit the mainstream radar with the retro pop sound of Rehab.
The song itself seemed like cheeky satire; a pop song selfie for the unapologetically unbalanced, allowing every armchair shrink and self-helper to create a paint-by-blunder portrait of the cheeky kid from North London with the killer voice.
Many of the assumptions were valid, but as Asif Kapadia’s haunting documentary, Amy, proves several times over, Winehouse was so much deeper, so much more talented and so much more betrayed than we ever could have imagined — magnifying the tragedy of her death in a truly profound way.
The difference is entirely emotional. Amy forces us to feel her demise in a personal way, without the slick star coating, and without the cynicism engendered by celebrity.
The key to Kapadia’s undeniable success comes down to his ability to create an arc that wasn’t visible before.
None of us had met her childhood friends, her first manager or even the assumed villain: the “bad boyfriend” Blake Fielder. Few of us had even seen pictures of the artist before she was swallowed by the humpback of fame — which is where Kapadia begins his slow, painstaking dirge.
Picking up Winehouse’s story when she was just a teenager who enjoyed writing poetry and singing to her friends, Kapadia shows us a young woman who seemed capable of experiencing joy. A hint of tomboy butting up against a goth take on Betty Page, the young Winehouse had close friends, a healthy social life and oodles of natural charisma that was only amplified when she opened her mouth to sing.
She studied the jazz greats, idolized Tony Bennett and dreamed of getting a record contract that would allow her creative muse to flourish without financial constraints. These were the early years, and while they had their own conflicts and simmering family dramas, Winehouse had a supportive team of people who knew who she was — and could get her back on track when she careered off the rails.
Central among them was Nick Shymansky, her first manager who was just a 19-year-old when the roller coaster chugged off the platform. Shymansky, like Winehouse’s childhood friends Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, had never told his story before.
Embittered by the media post-mortem that followed her death, they decided to hold it all in — until Kapadia came along with his camera, offering a confessional, and catharsis.
Though it took months to build up enough trust with his subjects to get the full narrative, these people are all-in by the time we hear their voices, often breaking with emotion as they recount the succession of events that lead to the eventual, unstoppable, downward spiral.
You can even hear a hint of misplaced culpability in Shymansky’s testimony as he talks about how young he was, how little experience he had in the music industry and how he was essentially flying by the seat of his pants when he and Winehouse landed their first record deal.
…in every sentence fragment of those bearing witness, we can hear a constant chorus of “What If?”…
It’s not his fault she dumped him when she hit the big-time, but in every sentence fragment of those bearing witness, we can hear a constant chorus of “What If?” because in this first act, Kapadia finds the people who truly loved Winehouse for who she was.
The second act introduces us to Blake Fielder, the former club promoter who eventually inspired the entirety of Back to Black, Winehouse’s multi-platinum outing about a romantic bust-up that made her an overnight superstar in North America and around the world.
Though the tunes are now familiar, the footage that takes us inside the recording sessions are a true revelation because they give us the whole artist in one gulp. Just watching her at the microphone, you can feel the genius dripping from her lips with every lyrical twist wrapped in her smooth, sticky and truly inspired black molasses phrasing.
It’s enough to send shivers down your spine because the more you come to appreciate who Winehouse really was, the bigger the looming cloud of destiny becomes.
By the time we hit Act Three in Kapadia’s emotionally distilled design, all the pieces of the eventual tragedy have been revealed: the insatiable thirst for her father’s conditional love, the irresponsible and self-destructive partner looking to affirm his own ego in the limelight and the losing battle with drug and alcohol addiction.
We know she’s a runaway train, but it’s proof of Kapadia’s ability to engage us emotionally that we still hope for history to hit reverse, and back away from the approaching cliff.
It’s an impressive accomplishment, but it’s not the first time Kapadia has successfully taken us to the heart of a known commodity and blown our minds. His first feature was the jaw-dropping portrait of Ayrton Senna, the Formula One race car driver who seemed destined to dominate the circuit.
Kapadia’s gift as a filmmaker seems to lie in his ability to empathize with his subject without turning him or her into some emotional marionette, manipulated to elicit maximum sympathy through sentimental sleight of hand.
In every shot, every clip and every voice-over there’s a deep respect for the human condition that eventually permeates the viewer, letting us see the nuances and shades of experience in a completely different, almost spiritual way.
In SENNA, Kapadia made engines and torque feel deeply meaningful because they had meaning to the man in the middle of the frame. In this Amy Winehouse documentary, it’s the music that suddenly feels monumental because somewhere in that dark stream of rolling notes and rumbling minors, we can hear the eternal soul of human sadness turned, for a brief moment, into something undeniably beautiful.
Such was the burden of Winehouse’s talent. But also, the gift of Amy.