Five years ago British-Indian filmmaker Asif Kapadia made his documentary debut with Senna, a film that received critical acclaim and a modest set of accolades. Further, it served as a brilliant example of a documentary film that had the potential of wooing non-fans to a subject matter they had no prior interest in. On Rotten Tomatoes it summarises the general consensus thusly, “Even for filmgoers who aren’t racing fans, Senna offers heart-pounding thrills…and heartbreaking emotion.” As one who isn’t an Amy Winehouse fan (hold your hate-mail, please), the question was whether Kapadia’s style would still be as palpable and enticing in Amy. The short answer is yes.
Similar to Senna, Amy is told mostly through archival footage from her early years in Southgate, North London, through to her music career and phenomenal success. Furthermore, much of the narrative is audibly told via voice-overs edited from Kapadia’s own interviews, which include her ex-husband Blake, musical friends Mos Def and Tony Bennett, and her family and childhood friends Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert. Following this style of documentary filmmaking, Kapadia foregrounds the dialogue of these interviewees and contextualises them with archival footage and home-videos.
Chris King does an incredible job as the film editor in piecing together the images into a coherent narrative. The time-frame is not wholly linear as some of Winehouse’s own interviews highlight some of the influences from her childhood. This back-and-forth in time chronology is a testament of King’s editorial skills in understanding the complexity of Winehouse’s character. Furthermore, King has managed to balance objectivity with deeper emotional meanings throughout the chapters of her tumultuous life.
The film is also strung together by Winehouse’s lyrics to emphasize the intimacy she had with her music. It is in the lyrics that one gains further access to her personal demons with drug/alcohol addiction, bulimia, self-harming, and troubled relationships, both sexual and platonic. As the lyrics are pasted onto the screen over the aforementioned footage, it allows the audience to gain greater perspective and context. It also allows the film’s rhetoric to neutralize the simplistic narrative the mainstream media wanted to tell.
It would be easy for the film to finger-point members of Winehouse’s entourage and circle as to who was responsible for her self-destructive behavior, so it is welcoming to see Kapadia tackle it from an objective stance. There has been some controversy – notably from Winehouse’s father – that it portrays the Winehouse family in a poor light, but as many instances in the film use testimonies from a number of people it’s difficult to discredit (fully) Kapadia’s choices.
Kapadia and King use the images and audio for more than fact-checking purposes; they use them to place the audience in Winehouse’s position. When the film chronicles her eventual downfall and the sudden jarring effect one experiences when propelled to the mainstream limelight, it does so with minimal warning. The film suddenly shifts from solemn and intimate archival footage to a barrage of flash photography, the paparazzi hounding her down the streets, and fans screaming. It is moments like this that transcend from a simply factual documentary to an emotive one, whilst still retaining its objective stance.
Amy offers a great insight into Winehouse’s troubled state of mind, and the pressure of fame in the mainstream media. There is an honesty in Winehouse’s assertion that she wanted to make jazz music for small music venues, rather than large festivals. Fans and non-fans alike will appreciate the grand scope Asif Kapadia has tackled in bringing Winehouse’s many facets onto the big screen with such coherence. The film is a noteworthy eulogy to Amy Winehouse’s career and her untimely, though not wholly surprising, death. It leaves no stone unturned.