The message of Amy Winehouse documentary: Look at what we did

A documentary of soul singer Amy Winehouseis more than your average portrait of a star's rise and fall

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 May, 2015, 10:54pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 May, 2015, 10:54pm


The history of pop music is littered with far too many untimely demises. But for all the cultural lumping together of these tragedies, they're hardly as similar as we tend to believe.

In Amy, a new documentary about the late star Amy Winehouse, we learn just how unique and complicated a descent can be. That narrative helped the film earn a warm reception from critics and audiences at this month's Cannes Film Festival, where it premiered ahead of a worldwide release in June. But the portrayal turns out to sit a lot less well with some of those closest to its subject.

Winehouse was the preternaturally talented singer-songwriter who won accolades for her debut, Frank, when she was barely 20 and was considered a budding soul great just three years later, in 2006, with her Grammy-winning Back to Black. But she would never record another studio album and died in 2011 at age 27 from alcohol poisoning.

Directed by fellow Londoner Asif Kapadia, the film paints a portrait of Winehouse that goes well beyond the rise-and-fall stories of other tragic music figures. Yes, there were enablers, such as ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, who said in a 2013 media interview that he introduced her to hard drugs. (She became convinced, one friend said, that she had to be "on his level".)

And Winehouse's father, Mitch, is presented unflatteringly in Amy as a hard-driving, self-glorifying stage parent who pushed his daughter to keep performing even when it was clear she needed help.

But the nuanced argument Amy makes is that it was a broader set of cultural factors that were also culpable in her undoing. Winehouse was subject to a relentless stream of late-night television jokes, paparazzi stalking, social-media snarking and tabloid drooling, and it soon overwhelmed her.

"It was a situation where she'd be a guest on a show one night and then mocked on that show the next or where a lot of people were participating in what became a kind of sport," Kapadia said at Cannes. "And that's one of the main things I wanted to accomplish. I want people to walk out feeling a little angry and a little complicit and a little guilty."

Kapadia became involved after her record company approached James Gay-Rees, the director's producing partner, with an idea to tell Winehouse's story. The executives were taken with Kapadia's earlier film, the motor racing documentary Senna, and wanted a similar in-depth treatment.

She didn’t present the same way to any two people. We’d interview one person and they’d say she was the most unbelievably attentive caring soul, and then someone else would say she was a hardcore gangster

As with that film, Kapadia's general approach is to forgo talking heads in favour of archival material. In this film he had to rely on audio from interviews - the production conducted more than 100 of them. Kapadia layers that over the footage so the documentary seems to be narrated as the events are happening instead of reflected upon later.

There is plenty of time, especially early in the film, devoted to Winehouse's luminous personality - an opening sequence shows her taking over a home video with a star's charm and assurance, channelling Marilyn Monroe.

And there's much in it that demonstrates her musical acumen. Winehouse wrote lyrics to many of her songs in longhand, and Kapadia shows snippets of those while superimposing personal lyrics over her performances, in a way that both moves the narrative forward and underscores her talent.

But the tale soon turns dark as Winehouse begins withdrawing, physically and emotionally, into her addiction. The film chronicles this in part by showing the reaction of family, friends and her representatives - all saying, basically, it wasn't up to them to do more. That includes Mitch Winehouse, who - though a figure Amy clearly adored and felt close to - at a moment when she seemed to need rest or rehab, appeared to push her to do more shows.

That depiction led to strong objections from the Winehouse family, which initially co-operated with the production but shortly before Cannes released a statement saying they'd like to "disassociate themselves from the forthcoming film about their much missed and beloved Amy".

The statement added that the family believed the film "is both misleading and contains some basic untruths".

In a subsequent interview with The Guardian, Mitch Winehouse elaborates that "they are trying to portray me in the worst possible light" and notes that the film suggested he didn't think Winehouse needed to go to rehab generally, when a comment he made to that effect was about a specific and more healthy moment in her life - an "at that time", he says, was edited out.

For their part, the filmmakers say they had no axe to grind. "I know it's too soon for some people," Kapadia says. "I do want people to see everyone for who they were and have a form of debate about the world we live in and what we do to people. I'm not trying to make anyone look bad."

Gay-Rees says one reason he believes Amy is evoking such intense emotions has less to do with the portrayal than the facts. "It's a really complicated story with no good guys or bad guys," he says. "Even Amy herself was a complicated, contradictory character. She didn't present the same way to any two people. We'd interview one person and they'd say she was the most unbelievably attentive caring soul, and then someone else would say she was a hardcore gangster."

One of the biggest questions - whether her compulsions were inextricable from her creativity - remains ambiguous in the film. Gay-Rees says she was someone "who had all this talent … but she had to have chaos in her life and possibly couldn't be a great artist without it".

Kapadia says it's a question he still struggles with. "I don't think I can offer simple answers," he says. "I just want people to look at someone who is so funny and so intelligent and so sharp. And I do want all of us, a little bit, to look at what we did."

Los Angeles Times