The best documentaries are illuminating. Most of the time they shed light on people or events about which we’re unfamiliar. The trickier, more rewarding documentaries disabuse us from our wrongheaded notions of things we already know (or think we do). Directed by Asif Kapadia, who also made the terrific Senna, the heartbreaking documentary Amy belongs in the latter category. His subject is Amy Winehouse, the late jazz singer whose rise to fame corresponded with addiction and tabloid attention. Using candid video footage and audio snippets from people who knew her best, Amy cinematically articulates why her death is a genuine tragedy.
The early sections of Amy have a “diamond in the rough” arc to them. Born and raised in North London, Amy is aware of her gifts as a songwriter and vocalist at an early age. Her singing voice is soulful – she has a working class English accent when she speaks – yet her sensibilities and songs are not merely the whim of a recording studio or record label: long before “Rehab,” Amy wrote Frank, a jazz album with confessional, mature songs. Kapadia uses a simple, powerful technique to convey the depth of her work: whenever she performs a song, the corresponding handwritten lyrics appear on the screen. It unites the early gigs, the recording sessions, and even her stints on late night American television. But once she becomes a star, Kapadia shifts away from her talent to her reputation as a hard-partying “bad girl,” which is both earned and forced upon her. Her friends grow more desperate about her health, while others in her life enable her, and the conclusion is all the more heartbreaking for it.
There have been a lot of documentaries about dead musicians lately – Kurt Cobain and Nina Simone come immediately to mind – but what makes Amy remarkable, even unique, is the footage Kapadia has at his disposal. In arguably the film’s most powerful scene, we watch the recording sessions for “Back to Black,” the titular song from her hit album. On one hand, all the hard work is done for Kapadia (i.e. he lucks into this footage). But his shrewd choice is to weave her isolated vocal track alongside the full, Motown-inspired orchestration. It’s a canny way to highlight her gifts, and they’re deepened because we learn the song is about Blake Fielder-Civil, the man that would eventually become her ex-husband. Nearly every great song is deeply personal, and Kapadia weaves performance with biography so the two complement each other in evocative, arresting ways.
Since Amy was a tabloid sensation and the brutal attention toward her helped define the last years of her life, there is a danger for exploitation in Kapadia’s documentary. He addresses the problem with off-camera interviews: snippets of audio provide helpful context, but since we cannot see them they serve as a de facto conscience, not remora of her fame and wealth. We see footage of her entering and leaving buildings, met by literally thousands of camera flashes, and the camera puts us at the same distance from her as a paparazzi. Post-production effects give these sequences a sense of paranoid horror: the cameras are dizzying, robbing Amy of her humanity, which help explain her dependence on drugs and alcohol.
Kapadia does not point fingers, exactly, and instead uses episodes from her life to help understand her choices (or lack of them). Her friends and family certainly pull her in two directions: her oldest friend holds her health above all – “Rehab” was written in part about him – while her father is greedy nag, constantly intoning about her “responsibilities.” In the most damning scene, Amy’s father brings a camera crew to the island paradise where she’s convalescing and we see a snippet of a man whose hunger for fame sometimes outweighed concern for his daughter. Moments like this are devastating, and not just because we now have the foresight to see how they’re destructive. At all levels of interaction, including the distant one between an artist and fan, Amy’s talent was never as nurtured as it should have been.
Amy does not play out like a cautionary tale – Kapadia is too curious about his subject for that – nor is it a biopic in a traditional sense. I have no sense of what omissions and liberties the documentary takes, and instead Amy is about the wrongheaded connection between talent and suffering. Amy Winehouse was at her productive when she was clean, when she was happy, and when she was with the right people. Photos of her emaciated from heroin, while heart-wrenching, do not add to her mystique. Amy ends with wise words from Tony Bennett, a peerless talent who was also one of Amy’s idols. It is easy for the mainstream to take Bennett for granted – I know I certainly do – but Amy never once did, and his earned wisdom adds depth to his songs, Amy’s songs, and the melancholy duet they once recorded together.