Asif Kapadia’s Amy has been praised by critics as a sensitive and perceptive examination of the circumstances surrounding the singer’s extraordinarily public life, folding back the layers of tabloid hyperbole to take a level and human look at the woman at the centre of it all. The story of Amy Winehouse’s incredible career is one of mountainous peaks of commercial and critical acclaim – and devastating chasms of heartbreak and excess. Impressing and moving commentators since premiering in June, Peter Bradshaw called the film ‘a tragic masterpiece’.
Kapadia’s Senna cemented the director’s reputation as a documentarian committed to clarity and even-handedness, and Amy is another example of his transparent and comprehensive style. Forgoing a typical talking-head approach, Kapadia’s film consists entirely of footage from Winehouse’s life and audio interviews with those closest to her. Ranging from broadcast and awards film to the most intimate and touching moments, a real life behind the media speculation and stage persona is revealed. It is this level of access and Kapadia’s determination to avoid sensation that makes Amy such a remarkable account of a life lived in the spotlight.
Drawing on the experiences and views of both the singer herself and the people she was surrounded by, the emotional punch of Amy is undeniable. Perhaps it is hindsight that lends her story the tenor of a tragedy – a sense of inevitability that hangs heavy over her early successes – but even with Kapadia’s unbiased presentation of the facts the gaggles of industry movers and players, friends and even family members emerge as portents of her undoing. Her father Mitch and husband Blake Fielder-Civil were both raked over the coals by a media in full hue and cry following her death, and in Amy both emerge as troubling figures: an absentee father who reappeared following her commercial success and famously advised her against entering rehab, and a similarly itinerant husband who drew Winehouse into crack and heroin use. These depictions have caused controversy – Mitch Winehouse, who was persuaded to cooperate with the director by his admiration for Kapadia’s Senna, has spoken out publicly about his portrayal.
As can be expected, much of Amy is harrowing and profoundly sad – another example of the media’s voracious appetite to consume the vulnerabilities of those in the limelight and the disturbing tendency of public opinion to prurience and pursuit. But these lessons remain edifying, even if they seem hard to learn – and Kapadia’s documentary is a valuable reminder of the human cost of this hunger.
Like other recent documentaries focused on unique and seemingly doomed musicians such as Brett Morgan’s depiction of Kurt Cobain in Montage of Heck and Jeff Feurezig’s The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Kapadia’s film attempts to draw in closer to the reality of its subject’s life whilst recounting a remarkable talent. It is in the meeting of those two factors that Amy finds its particularly affecting heft. Songs that were poignant during her life and crushingly sad following her death are imbued with a haunting resonance when viewed through the events leading up to her demise; Kapadia’s skilful and exacting approach to laying out a complete story and his accomplishment in crafting compelling narratives combine to make a heartbreaking eulogy and tribute to one of the 21st century’s most fascinating performers.
Composed with the tautness of a thriller and the compassion of a sincere attempt to understand an individual swathed in mythology and the judgements of others, Amy’s messages go beyond the simple examination of the life of a star to ask us to question our appetites for, and entitlements to, the inner lives of those who entertain us. Arriving in UK cinemas on 3 July we are thrilled that we are able to offer this fantastic film to Cinema For All members from 14 August.