Despite everyone knowing the sad, abrupt end to Amy Winehouse’s life, Asif Kapadia is such a masterful storyteller that revisiting the tragedy at the film’s ending produces such overwhelming grief. Like previous film Senna, Amy is a documentary retold entirely with archival footage, along with a sprinkling of new interviews laden on top. Uninhibited by talking heads, its narrative mesmerises and her talent and tragedy is laid bare, naked and vulnerable on screen. Even as someone not hugely acquainted with Amy’s life and career, the film turns ambivalence into a great sorrow.
It is steeped with controversy, interviewing those closest to Amy and seemingly getting their approval, only to ultimately portray them in a wholly unfavourable light, not least her father, although her drug addicted husband surely never have expected to be sugar coated. Discovering these different forces in Winehouse’s life helps the audience understand why her character became so torn and fragmented. The film manages to gracefully steer itself away from preaching against drug taking, instead letting the bare facts of Winehouse’s addiction speak for themselves and the film is far stronger for it.
Kapadia manages to illustrate so many nuances of her character. Her down to earth sense of humour is charming, sometimes an unintentional part of just who she was. At the 2008 Grammy Awards she is filmed in London surrounded by friends. When the other nominees are read out, her reaction to hearing the title of Justin Timberlake’s record ‘What Goes Around/Comes Around’ is one of many, small intimate glances into a woman so removed from disingenuous fame culture. Then there is a particularly painful moment just after she wins the Grammy, seemingly ecstatic for a brief moment despite all her problems and then she calls one of her best friends up onto stage, one of the few people who seems to encourage Amy to take the sort of support she needs. This friend tells us what Amy actually said to her at that moment and it’s a terrible kick in the guts, an awful juxtaposition of amazing success and endless unfulfillment. Naturally, Kapadia weaves Winehouse’s incredible music elegantly around the bones of her fragile character, opting to use much live footage which further illustrates the intimacy of her sound, always at odds with the stadiums and arenas she was later, almost forcibly made to fill.
Having never previously given Amy Winehouse a great deal of thought, the film left me completely distraught, a real overwhelming sadness lingers over this documentary. A great artist suffering problems with depression and addiction is perhaps not an unusual story, but here it is extraordinarily told. Enthralling and nuanced, it’s a delicate gem.
Amy is out on 3rd July in the UK and 10th July worldwide. Running time 128 mins. Certificate 15 (UK).
Review by David Rank