I didn’t know hardly anything about Amy Winehouse before seeing Amy, which probably makes this review relatively unique. It’s not as if her life hasn’t been covered before, I just don’t pay enough attention. So I can definitely say that this documentary is interesting and informative even for nonfans. It’s an interesting look at how life and art run parallel to each other, which I found more compelling than the more traditional look at the price of fame and the costs of addiction and so on.
The beginning of the film establishes Amy’s talent from an early age. It opens with a startling rendition of “Happy Birthday” by the teenage Winehouse and goes on to “Moon River” with a youth orchestra. It also establishes her addictive personality from early on. Things keep chugging along and everything seems good with the release of her first album “Frank,” and then the film takes a darker turn. It rides along the waves of Amy’s art and addiction; the ebb and flow of both provides the rhythm of the film.
The high point of the film is the release of her second album, “Black to Black,” which is mainly what her musical stardom rests on. The energy the film takes on with the writing and release of that second album is astounding. After a low point following the breakup with her then boyfriend and future husband, Blake Fiedler, she cleans herself up and finally gets to writing a second album. There’s a sense of triumph in the montage of all the different performances of “Rehab” cut together with the song. Another highlight is the scene as she records “Back to Black” in the studio and the instruments drop in and out, so sometimes we only hear Winehouse singing and nothing else. A comment on her isolation maybe? But really the effectiveness of that scene comes just from witnessing her talent.
Seeing the parallels between the songs on the album and the events in her life is fascinating. It not only gives context to songs people have been listening to for almost ten years now, but what is more amazing to me is to see the consistent symbolism her lyrics carry throughout the whole album. (But back to the film; I’m not a music reviewer.) The film makes this clear by putting the lyrics onscreen, often layering her earlier written drafts to see her songwriting process. Intellectually I know I should be annoyed at the film giving me the same information twice (both audibly and visually), but it was helpful for me because I didn’t actually have the lyrics memorized like fans would have.
I don’t think Kapadia necessarily tried to demonize anyone in the making of this film, but two figures definitely come out of it looking pretty terrible. One is the boyfriend/husband Blake; it seems that he came back to Amy only because she was rich and famous, and then got her addicted to cocaine and heroine to keep her dependent on him (she was so in love with him to begin with this was probably completely unnecessary). The other, her father Mitch, looks bad from the beginning. He never was really a strong presence in Amy’s early life and as such basically let her do whatever she wanted when she really needed someone to care about her enough to stop her from doing what she wanted. His bringing camera crews for his reality show while she is recovering in St. Lucia looks pretty terrible. Trying to keep an open mind, it’s hard to know for sure the motivations behind their actions, but the effects on Amy are awful nonetheless.
I find it especially hard with documentaries more so than narrative films to look at the film making rather than just the story. I feel that with documentaries, a large part of the reason people watch them is just to learn about whatever subject or person they’re tackling. Watching Amy, I was struck by how much of it was made up of existing footage. As far as I can tell, all they shot for this film were some establishing shots of London. We did not have to sit through a bunch of interviews; the audio testimony was laid over home videos, photographs, TV footage, or what have you. It’s not that interviews are always bad, but it was refreshing to not see any here, besides it allows for more images of Winehouse herself.
Keeping that in mind, most of the artistry on the part of the filmmakers must have been in editing (the editor on the film was Chris King). I already mentioned the “Rehab” montage that I’m a big fan of, but they bring that same song back later in the film closer to her death to devastating results. You can see the difference in her performance of it; yes, she still sounds good but there’s no light behind her eyes. She can still sing but she can’t perform. Also the subject matter of the song takes on a different meaning the second time around and it’s pretty devastating. It’s also worth noting all of the different media that went into the film, and a great part of the success of it is how seamless it all feels.
I greatly appreciated Amy. It accomplished the most difficult and important job of any movie; it stopped time and held my attention the whole time. Sometimes it seems harder for documentaries to do that, but this one definitely was telling a story and not just trying to recite a bunch of facts. The examination of the destructiveness of fame was not especially new here, but it was effectively done. What I appreciated more was how the film gave context to her songs, showing how her life and personal problems served as raw material for her art. As an examination of the artistic process, Amy is certainly worth the look.
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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