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Categories: Movie Reviews

Joe Morgan reviews Asif Kapadia’s harrowing documentary “Amy”, which peers into the public and private life of singer Amy Winehouse through home videos, still pictures and interview narration.

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It’s been four years since the death of Amy Winehouse, and Asif Kapadia’s Amy is the first film which attempts to piece together why the life of this supremely talented and beautiful young woman ended in such tragedy and squalor. He does so in a way that is incredibly harrowing, relying on home video and amateur footage of Amy accompanied by narration comprised entirely of interviews with the people that were closest to her. This method makes for a highly intimate and personal portrayal that captures what feels like every key moment of her early life and career.

The attention Winehouse received from the paparazzi ensured her long struggle with severe drug and alcohol addiction remained firmly in the spotlight during her darkest periods, something which the film suggests significantly contributed to her downfall. What becomes obvious when watching Amy is that witnessing her self-destruction through the prism of the media offers no real explanation as to how and why her behavior was becoming so erratic. As a result of this, it wasn’t until her death in 2011 that her antics were eventually thought of by the public as something much darker than the mere excesses of celebrity lifestyle.

Amy succeeds in righting this wrong. It takes the media to task for creating this false impression and for pursuing her so ruthlessly at a time when it was clear that being so firmly rooted in the public eye was severely affecting her mental and physical wellbeing. Some individuals around her are also portrayed as being responsible for hastening her demise, particularly her father Mitch, who has publicly condemned the film for what he suggests is an inaccurate and unfair representation. His protests are not surprising given that he is consistently presented as giving very little thought to his daughter’s welfare, being far too preoccupied with making money and keeping Amy in the public eye rather than perhaps slowing things down until she was able to focus more on conquering her demons.

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Had this been a Hollywood biopic of Amy’s life, Mitch Winehouse’s protests may have been both legitimate and justifiable given the tendency for these films to exaggerate the “villainous” qualities of certain characters in order to maximize dramatic effect. But this is a documentary, comprised entirely of real footage, captured exactly as it unfolded. The film contains very little intervention from the filmmakers themselves and is completely free from dramatic reconstruction of any kind, allowing the footage to speak for itself.  

It’s true that documentary filmmakers are able to choose exactly which footage to include and which to discard, using the power of editing to construct or pursue a particular argument or point of view in a manner that can often be highly subjective and perhaps even wholly inaccurate. But the footage of Winehouse senior’s shameless pandering to the media and his constant insistence that his daughter continue to perform and indulge the excessive media attention, when she was evidently in no fit state to do so, is hard to read as anything other than greed and selfishness, the disastrous consequences of which become all too apparent. The same can be said of Amy’s brief and mutually destructive marriage to Blake Fielder Civil, who is similarly portrayed as leeching from his wife’s money and success whilst significantly furthering her decline.

Surprisingly, the most harrowing footage is not of Winehouse during her darkest moments, of which there are plenty, but the extensive home video clips that show her years before she became famous and consequently before her struggles with bulimia and drug addiction had begun to take their toll. Here was an obviously bright, funny and uniquely attractive person with the ability, according to some of her friends, to light up a room with her personality alone, and with an unmistakable talent for singing and songwriting that she was preparing to conquer the world with. To see this person reduced to the stumbling, malnourished and incoherent husk that she eventually became adds extra poignancy to these early scenes that makes her eventual demise seem even more tragic.

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Also contained within Amy are insights into the singer that are not as particularly well-known as some of the more lurid aspects of her personal life. She will always be revered for the uniqueness of her singing voice that will rightly see her remembered as perhaps the last of the great female jazz vocalists, but it is sometimes forgotten that she also possessed the ability to write her own material, something which the film reminds us of thanks to the wealth of intimate footage showing Winehouse composing material for her two albums in recording studios. 

Taking a firm stance against the media’s shameless intrusion when Winehouse was at her most vulnerable, Amy also inevitably makes clear the tremendously destructive role that drugs and alcohol played in her demise. Perhaps for these reasons, and given Amy’s popularity amongst younger audiences, the film deserves to be screened in schools during PSE classes, if only to demonstrate the awful consequences of addiction and substance misuse, and the ability for excessive hard drug taking to extinguish talent of the most unique and profound kind.

Amy will be out on DVD in December. 

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Joe is a Cardiff based writer, graduating in 2013 from the University of Glamorgan with a degree in Film Studies. He is also a contributor to The Upcoming where he also writes about film, as well as politics and current affairs. Follow him on twitter at @EustoniteJM

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Posted on Oct 5, 2015

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