Amy: a review

amy angel

In 2012, a year after her death, Asif Kapadia was approached to make a ‘warts and all’ documentary about Amy Winehouse. The commission came from the label that owns the artist’s back catalogue – Universal Music UK – whose CEO is an executive producer on the film. ‘Amy’ is now out on general release and has been critically acclaimed as a gritty and truthful portrait of the star.It’s hard not to be moved by the film since it documents the rise and fall of a charismatic artist who is eminently watchable – and she is rarely off screen. The film is constructed around a chronological collage, starting with home videos and phone footage shot by family, friends and her first manager, Nick Shymansky, before she was famous.

Mischievous, outspoken, funny, subversive and shy, she is recognisably ‘Amy’ in these early glimpses. But the apparent intimacy this lends the documentary is partly illusory since she is performing even then – as we all do in front of a camera. Little by little these informal shots give way to promotional interviews, concert footage before bigger and bigger audiences, and the scenes of her very public decline.

Kapadia’s interviews with her family, colleagues and friends are relegated to the sound track of this compelling montage. The technique does away with tedious ‘talking heads’ but at a price. Unable to see expressions or body language we lose any nuance – both in the self-justifications of her husband, father and tour manager and in the moving testimony of her two closest friends, the most ‘reliable witnesses’ in the film.

What we are left with, then, is a montage of an ‘Amy’ knowingly on display but the notion that this is the ‘real’ Amy is reinforced rather than challenged by the perspectives of those who actually knew her. And the tale of the Amy on display is a familiar and abidingly popular one, as is evident by the clichés recycled in the rave reviews of the film: she is ‘fragile’, ‘troubled’, a moth drawn to a flame, a comet which burned bright and fell from the sky.

At some point in the middle of the film it is casually revealed that Amy Winehouse suffered from Bulimia – an eating disorder which afflicts around 4% of the UK population and 5% of college-age women in the USA. Eating disorders are on the rise across the world and nine out of ten sufferers are women, driven into a destructive conflict with their own bodies by the desire to match the pre-pubescent figures beloved of the fashion industry. In the US three quarters of female alcoholics under the age of 30 also have eating disorders. The 20% who receive no help will die – like Karen Carpenter who starved herself to death at the age of 33. Seen in this context Amy Winehouse’s ‘story’ is not so rock and roll after all; nor is it, sadly, unusual.

What was unusual was her considerable talent and her reluctance to play the air-brushed celebrity game despite being in the public eye – where she was duly objectified, commodified, hounded and ultimately mocked. Her ruthless pursuit by the media is powerfully conveyed in the film, as is the gleeful jeering of ‘personalities’ like Graham Norton and Jay Leno. But here ‘Amy’ has its cake and eats it too: the film recycles intrusive images of her ravaged body and tormented face for us all to enjoy, indulging our morbid fascination from the moral high-ground of retrospective disapproval.

These are the ‘warts’ that are offered up in this documentary, sanctioned as it is by Universal. The ‘star is born’ script of the female artist, heartbroken, led astray, too fragile to cope with the demands of fame – a cautionary tale familiar to us all and therefore easy to package and sell. We are even treated to footage of her corpse being carried out of her house on a stretcher, presumably in case we didn’t realise she is dead.

As a portrait of the public commodity Amy Winehouse, a sharp lyricist and musician with a great jazz voice, the film certainly delivers. How could it not? But there is a presumption of intimacy in the title which the film simply doesn’t deliver. The most moving bit, for me, was the footage of her notorious last concert in Belgrade. Pushed to tour when she didn’t want to, shoved into the spotlight when she should have been in hospital, she comes on stage and, for the first few minutes at least, resists the pressure to be ‘Amy’ and refuses to sing.

 

 

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