Written By James Jones
Rating: 4 stars
There’s a moment in Asif Kapadia’s latest film when a paparazzi mob briefly parts and a young and dazed woman staggers through the suffocating mass of camera flashes. Her life and health is in ruins, under the grip of a drug habit which was destructive as it was predictable. The footage is uncomfortable to watch and is emblematic of a life lived – and lost – in front of intense media and public attention. The woman? Amy Winehouse.
Asif Kapadia is a brilliant documentary director and his latest film, Amy, is a master-class in the art of editing. Having collated a wide range of archival footage, from family home videos to mobile phone clips and official television programmes, Kapadia and editor Chris King have managed to construct a compelling and coherent narrative which tells of Amy’s rise to meteoric stardom and the pressures encountered by a woman for whom fame and commercial success were unwanted by-products of her love for creating jazz music. In one sequence, a young Amy says that she wouldn’t handle fame well, suggesting that it might be the death of her. The ultimate tragedy is that she went on to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Early on in the film, we discover that Amy doesn’t consider herself to be a songwriter, although she does “write poetry”. And it is this poetry on which Kapadia chooses to focus, displaying the lyrics from Amy’s songs on-screen and using them to construct a narrative in conjunction with voice-overs from those who knew and worked with the star (there are no talking heads here to distract from the immersion in the archival footage). Whilst there is an element of contrivance in using her lyrics to create and reflect the film’s narrative, it is nonetheless a very successful way of threading together otherwise disparate source material.
This brilliant editing is coupled with the film’s non-judgemental, but resolute and unflinching approach to the events in Amy’s life: events as dramatic as they are sad to watch. The media circus which enveloped Amy is explored, as is her troubled relationship with Blake Fielder and the role that her father played in her later years. The audience is left to draw their own conclusions and Kapadia carefully intertwines the archive footage with the interviews and song lyrics to create a bold, heartbreaking film.
Early scenes of Amy’s successes give a glimpse of a girl with a talent far beyond her years and her lack of confidence during an Abbey Road recording session with Tony Bennett is very touching. Moments such as when Amy wins a Grammy award and then confesses to her friend that she finds no enjoyment in the moment without drugs look staged, as if written by a screenwriter. It is Amy’s ultimate tragedy that this was, in fact, real life.
Amy is a powerful and desperately sad film. Amy Winehouse’s unique talent catapulted her into a world where, for the most part, she felt uncomfortable and lost. She was arguably surrounded by the wrong people at the wrong time and faced debilitating media scrutiny. Kapadia’s film is an impressive and affecting piece of work and documents the very best – and worst – of a girl who had nothing if not an astounding set of lungs.