A documentary on the life of Amy Winehouse could easily have been done in a conventional manner a long the lines of A&E’s “Biography” series and still been plenty compelling. Winehouse was an enigma whose tempestuous relationships with people and drugs made for ideal tabloid fodder as well as a fascinating character study. But Asif Kapadia (“Senna”) strives for something more with “Amy” and it has a more powerful effect.
The film is assembled almost entirely from archive footage and images, which provides an unprecedented degree of proximity to the subject, Winehouse. Somehow, friends and colleagues took so much video of her, and Kapadia uses it to give us an authentic window into her personality, particularly the early years. Of course as time marches on and Winehouse is struck with stardom, so much of the film transfers over to paparazzi footage. The contrast is kind of stunning.
The film also uses only audio voice-over testimonials (we see none of the people interviewed in the film as they are being interviewed, only through photos and old footage,) so the frame remains tightly fixed on Winehouse and allows us to really focus on and explore her many dimensions.
Kapadia is also intrigued by Winehouse’s music and makes her lyrics a major lens with which we are to view her as a person. She talks at one point about how she couldn’t write lyrics that weren’t directly about her experiences, so naturally the songs pair well with certain segments of the film/her life. In this way, “Amy” approaches the subject’s craft and creativity in a way no film about an artist has before.
“Amy” doesn’t overdramatize Winehouse’s life, but Kapadia does make choices to focus on the difficult and uncomfortable components. He wants his audience to take note of the many factors that likely contributed to the dark parts of her life and consider what might’ve been had those negative influencers been handled appropriately.
At times, even though the film is so fixed on Winenhouse, it manages to hold a mirror up to the audience. We dismissed her as another irresponsible, drug-addled pop star when clearly she was a down-to-earth jazz singer underneath it all. When we crave and demand certain things from artists and we take pleasure in consuming more than just their craft, we contribute to fame that some people simply aren’t meant to endure.
“Amy” is a relatively long documentary, and it’s insistence on raw footage can make for a challenging watch, but investing in Kapadia’s method of storytelling results in such a rich experience and way of exploring a person’s life. Other documentaries provide much more traditional forms of portrayals and storytelling, but it’s the raw, focused, alternative perspective of “Amy” that makes it unique and powerful.
Directed by Asif Kapadia