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August 29, 2016

Amy (2015)
Director: Asif Kapadia

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Synopsis: The music and life of British singer, Amy Winehouse.

Review: It would be hard to entirely mess up a documentary portrait of Amy Winehouse. The raw material is so rich and purely sensational: the stratospheric rise to fame, the sheer brilliance of her voice and music, the force of her personality, the lurid sagas of her personal life and battles with addiction, and the tragic end-game of her demise. Asif Kapadia mines this subject matter and narrative arc competently enough – although in some respects, it’s almost a director-proof proposition as long as there is access to enough archive material – and in many ways, he has crafted a docu-portrait very similar in tone to his Senna from four years previous.

Considering the obsessive and intrusive media interest in Winehouse’s life, particularly in its final few years, it shouldn’t be a surprise at the sheer quantity of material available to Kapadia, but what is interesting is just how much documentary footage Winehouse and her entourage recorded themselves – even in the days before mobile phone technology was completely invasive. This footage moves naturally enough from fairly light, jovial scenes of a young Winehouse kicking her career off with her friend and manager, Nick Shymansky, through to more sordid scenes of domestic squalor and her destructive relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil and her struggles with alcohol and drugs.

Essentially a great whistlestop tour through the life and very phenomenon of Amy Winehouse, the film succeeds in making two very salient points about its subject. First, how she was by-product of useless parenting (not just the frequently demonised father Mitch, but even her mother, Janis, who makes frank admissions of her failures – particularly when not addressing Winehouse’s bulimia when it first manifested itself in her teenage years.) The flawed parenting and vested interests of her various managers and recording company meant there wasn’t enough unequivocal intervention when Winehouse’s failing health clearly warranted it: Mitch’s assertion that as a twenty-something woman, Winehouse was ultimately responsible for her own decisions, doesn’t cut much sway – irrespective of age, a true loved-one would always intervene when a friend or family member needed it. Also, the documentary hints at Winehouse being more a force of nature, almost an unconstructed energy, rather than someone perhaps innately sage and interesting (though her take-down of the interviewer reverently analysing Dido lyrics is priceless!) If Winehouse had stayed alive she would invariably have matured, but irrespective, we still have the voice and songs born out of her rawness and volatility. (September 2016)

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