AmyJuly 4, 2015
There is a terrible sense of inevitability about Amy. We know where the story is going before it gets started but this doesn’t lessen the morbid fascination of Amy Winehouse’s descent into the abyss. Watching Asif Kapadia’s documentary is like watching a boxing match where the TKO should have been applied at round six or seven. Instead the punishment continues to the point where it’s almost a relief when the heroine finally checks out at the classic rock star age of 27.
What makes the story all the more tragic is that Kapadia spends the first part of the film creating a portrait of a bright, funny, ridiculously talented performer. Winehouse was a Jewish girl from North London with an unfashionable love for classic jazz singers and crooners such as Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Tony Bennett. It ran in the family. Her paternal grandmother had been a singer, while there were jazz musicians on her mother’s side of the family.
An early home movie shows Winehouse as a precocious 14-year-old, singing Happy Birthday to her friend, Lauren Gilbert, in a manner that already shows a great sense of style. More womanly than her companions, she would never lack boyfriends during her teens. This may have been partly a result of her father, Mitch, leaving the family while she was still a child. In every story of doomed talent the common factor seems to be the absent father.
Mitch Winehouse does not come across well in a film he has been quick to condemn. Having abandoned the family during his daughter’s most impressionable years, he returns to capitalise on her stardom. The low point is when he arrives with a camera crew while Amy is in retreat in St. Lucia, trying to piece her life back together. Mitch is one of many characters who appear to have been more concerned with using the singer for their own selfish purposes than providing the help she so badly required. He may bear more responsibility than most because a subtext to Winehouse’s career was the constant needed to win her father’s affection.
As he did with Senna (2010), another tale of a doomed popular cultural icon, Kapadia constructs this film as a montage of interviews, archival videos and newsreel footage. There is no narrator, and most of the interviews are conducted off camera, like a commentary on the action as it unfolds on screen. If one can overcome the increasingly sordid details it is the music that leaves the strongest impression. Winehouse had a unique, distinctive voice, and the kind of charisma that conquers audiences.
The self-penned lyrics of Winehouse’s songs are mordant and largely autobiographical. Kapadia runs them across the bottom of the frame so we don’t miss a word. They are in the grand tradition of the nightclub chanteuse, filled with infidelity, guilt, lost love and recrimination.
I cheated myself,
Like I knew I would
I told you I was trouble,
You know that I’m no good
For most of this film Winehouse is better than good. She’s brassy, sexy and self-confident, a natural comedienne. She remains close to her school friends, Lauren and Juliette, and has a friendly, supportive manager in Nick Shymansky.
In the liner notes to her debut album, Frank (2003), she is shown standing in the kitchen wearing a t-shirt, and playing pool at the pub. By the time of the long-awaited second album, Black to Black (2006) she has become a tattooed vamp with a beehive hair-do, and a line in eye makeup that hadn’t been seen since ancient Egypt.
Winehouse had fallen for Blake Fielder-Civil, who is widely believed to have introduced her to heroin and crack. The relationship was distinguished by drug and alcohol binges, and violent fights. The couple were married in 2007 but the downward spiral had begun the moment Fielder-Civil entered the picture. He provided the subject matter for almost every song on Back to Black.
One begins to feel that Winehouse could only write about things she had experienced personally, with maximum blood-letting. As well as her addictions to drugs and alcohol she was depressive and bulimic. Love was another self-destructive narcotic.
As her fame and popularity increased the paparazzi swarmed like locusts, with outrageous incidents producing more desirable photos. It’s the oldest of show biz clichés for a star to be destroyed by her own fame, but Winehouse fits the template precisely. The shock horror moment arrives in 2008, when the singer wins five Grammy Awards. She had been cleaned up in the weeks leading up to the presentations, and looked as if she was back to her best.
In the moment of triumph Winehouse sees an old schoolfriend in the audience, drags her off to the side of the stage and whispers: “It’s just so boring without the drugs.”
There was no turning back from that point, although she carried on until July 23 2011, dying with five times the legal limit of alcohol in her bloodstream. Winehouse’s last performance had been the infamous concert in Sarajevo, when she was so stoned she could barely stand, let alone sing. It seems incredible the people around her couldn’t see that this gig was out of the question, but the financial pressures involved made them unwilling to accept the truth.
One almost wishes Kapadia’s own commitment to the truth was a little less exacting. The second half of Amy is a cross between a disaster movie and a murder mystery, in which we struggle to identify the perpetrator. Winehouse may have been the agent of her own destruction but there were dishonorable roles played by the hapless Blake Fielder-Civil, her opportunistic father, her second agent, Raye Cosbert, and others. The only figure who makes a late appearance and can leave with his head held high is Tony Bennett, who recorded a series of duets with Winehouse. “She was,” he says, “the truest natural jazz singer I’ve ever heard.”
Written & directed by Asif Kapadia
Starring Amy Winehouse, Nick Shymansky, Lauren Gilbert, Juliette Ashby, Mitch Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil, Tony Bennett, Yasiin Bey
UK, rated MA 15+, 128 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 4th July, 2015.