It’s rare to find an artist so thoroughly capable of translating their inner turmoil into something so ferocious and beautiful. Amy Winehouse was one such musical artist. Simply, she was a conduit for the human condition. The new documentary, Amy, attempts to use archival footage, interviews, and performance highlights to better understand the woman behind the lyrics. Unfortunately, director Asif Kapadia’s kitchen-sink approach isn’t suited for such a complicated subject. In the end, what should have been a celebration of Winehouse’s unique talent becomes a cliché-ridden obsession to explain her downfall.
By the time she died of alcohol poisoning in 2011, 27 year-old Amy Winehouse had become a walking punchline. Her emaciated appearance (due to a longstanding eating disorder) and drug-addled antics made it easy to dismiss her amazing accomplishments. But beyond the Grammy Awards and the sensational concert meltdowns, there was a truly gifted artist. She crafted each of her jazz-laden songs with honesty and startling vulnerability. She was the anti-celebrity; an urgent performer who lived each white-hot moment completely bereft of pretense or bullshit.
Hidden beneath all this swagger and fierce artistic integrity, however, was a fragile woman who desperately needed validation. Not from her legions of adoring fans, but from the men in her life. From the father (Mitch) who abandoned her as a child, to her co-dependent loser of a husband (Blake Fielder-Civil), Winehouse entrusted her delicate psyche to the worst possible people. Indeed, Mitch Winehouse is one of the most loathsome characters in recent memory. After leaving a rudderless Winehouse to her own devises as a teenager, Mitch conveniently re-emerges to share in her financial success, all the while disregarding the warning signs of her imminent collapse (including his famous recommendation to shun rehab). For all of its failings as a biopic, Amy still serves as a powerful feminist statement and a warning to women everywhere: Never rely on men for validation!
The focus of director Asif Kapadia’s film remains murky throughout. Sometimes it feels like he wants to set the record straight; to shame the opportunists and vultures who hounded Winehouse during her darkest struggles. Other times, he seems content to just sit back and watch events unfold. This is a complicated story that demands a clear, cohesive narrative, yet Kapadia throws everything at the screen in some frantic attempt to gain an emotional foothold.
There are times when he comes dangerously close to succeeding, as when we watch a mesmerized Winehouse awaiting the announcement of her Grammy Award. Or, in perhaps the film’s most sublime peek into Winehouse’s personality, a late-night voicemail to producer Salaam Remi, in which she hilariously challenges him to a duel of ‘battle rapping.’ Sadly, these quiet moments of insight are a rarity in Amy.
The problems start almost immediately, as the first act focuses on Winehouse’s teenage years. We meet her dear friend and former manager, Nick Shymansky. He’s a good bloke who, by his own admission, was too young to understand a mercurial talent like Winehouse. We hang out with her girlfriends and bask in the minutiae of day-to-day life that always seems more interesting than it actually is. These segments feel like a Friday night trapped at the neighbor’s house as he forces you to watch his home movies. Even this would have been acceptable had the random movies added some genuine insight into Winehouse’s personality. They don’t. About all we can gather is that she was a typical teenager growing up in the digital age; self-absorbed, goofy, and equally covetous and contemptuous of her parent’s attention. We only needed 10 economical minutes to learn she was a normal girl, but we get 30 grueling minutes, instead.
The skies lighten a bit in the film’s middle section, as we see the run-up to Winehouse’s debut album, Frank. It’s here that we truly appreciate her artistic gift for translating demons into song. Kapadia finds a nice groove tying Winehouse’s life experiences to her musical diatribes. She chides an indecisive boyfriend in “Stronger Than Me,” and embraces her sexual freedom in, “In My Bed.” These sequences, which feature Winehouse performing her songs as the lyrics materialize on the screen, are more entertaining, provocative, and informative than anything else we see in Amy. Winehouse gave us everything we needed to know in those amazing songs. Perhaps that’s why any documentary about Winehouse was doomed to feel shallow; nothing can compare to the depth of her own words, not even the woman herself.
Ironically, once her mega-hit and radio calling card, “Rehab,” hits the screen, Amy completely falls apart. Kapadia, who seemed content to sit back and let Winehouse tell her story in the middle portion, starts insinuating himself into the narrative. We get obvious jabs at celebrity culture, bloodsucking paparazzi, and the entertainers who mocked Winehouse’s descent. This might have worked had Kapadia picked one idea and stuck with it. Instead, he starts mercilessly hammering the same Behind the Music story beats over and over again. The end result is a film that relegates Winehouse to a tragic archetype, rather than expanding her into a fully-realized human being.
Worse still, the editing undermines larger themes about celebrity and the cultural obsession with destroying our idols. We get numerous clips of Winehouse performing on the late-night talk circuit, being lavished with adoration and praise. Imagine the impact of juxtaposing these obsequious clips with later footage of the same men, now mocking Winehouse’s misfortune. Instead, they are presented chronologically, with large time gaps between them; a wasted opportunity to connect some very hypocritical dots.
Director Kapadia obviously has the best of intentions with Amy, but his scattershot approach does less to celebrate Winehouse’s immense talent than to paint her as a pitiable figure. What happened to her was heartbreaking and infuriating, but her untimely demise was only a tiny portion of her legacy. Perhaps true fans will find something insightful in this random collection of archival footage. Most viewers, however, will only remember those brief scenes when Winehouse stands behind the microphone and blisters paint from the walls with her primal tributes. As legendary crooner Tony Bennett sagely observes in the film’s final moments, “Life teaches you how to live it, if you live long enough.” That Winehouse never learned that lesson is tragic, but trying so desperately to explain her death feels redundant and borderline exploitative. All the answers can be found in her music. The rest is just the empty posturing that Amy tried so desperately to avoid.