Like many people, I first heard about Amy Winehouse when her worldwide hit song Rehab swept across the globe, taking all before it. Suddenly it was everywhere and so was she. Soon, the story became “troubled star struggles with drugs”. Winehouse’s music was on high-rotation; she was winning awards and becoming a tabloid staple. Within an amazingly short period, she was both fiercely beloved by fans and a media punchline. The stories of drug abuse, the cat-eye makeup and the Ronnie Spector ‘do made her easy to caricature and a legion of impersonators and sketch comedians did.
AMY, the new documentary on Amy Winehouse’s life begins long before the media whirlwind. We see her as a fourteen-year-old at home with friends, singing happy birthday. She has that voice and a performer’s personality, but she’s also living a fairly ordinary life in London’s Southgate. She’s a kid with talent, a wannabe, whose parents split five years previously and who divides her time between two houses. The video history continues, we see young Amy in unremarkable home movies of family events. It’s a reminder that before our current era of 24/7, HD quality, smartphone videography, we were pretty fond of getting out the handicam and shooting poor quality images in low light. This is not a movie for people who want beautiful pictures or have a problem with hand-held, amateur photography.
The argument for using such source material is to get at the truth of the documentary’s subject. We are shown who Winehouse was before she invented her showbiz persona and before the drunken, drugged-out, bulimic party girl image became the only one we could see. Her first interviews are used as the basis for understanding her songwriting. Lyrics are given graphic form as she sings, which I found annoying at first, until it became clear how much she wrote from her own experiences, then I appreciated how much of Winehouse was in the music. Her work was crafted, it wasn’t just her journal transposed into song, but the veil between her reality and what she sang, was gossamer-thin at times. It was this raw honesty about her emotions and her struggles that won her a multitude of fans.
The evidence of her talent is all through the film, however she also had that more elusive quality that we used to call X-factor, until reality television ruined that particular term. Part of it was her vulnerability, which we also see in stars like Monroe and Dean. That vulnerability was not helpful in living through the onslaught of the paparazzi and the trash press. From her earliest dealings with media she made an impression because she was barely filtered. She had a tough side, too, and was often referred to as “gobby” or “mouthy” because she didn’t do a polite line of celebrity chat. Interestingly, she is never shown expressing much of a desire for fame, she makes it clear that she wants to sell records, so she has the power to work with the people she admires. The work is the thing.
Apart from Winehouse herself, her friends and family are interviewed in what would normally be talking-head segments, but director Asif Kapadia has made the choice to supply only audio. There is also interview input from management, record company execs, drug counselors and doctors. All of this creates a detailed portrait of her rise and fall, but not all who knew her approve of this picture. Winehouse’s father, Mitchell, has spoken out against his portrayal as the “villain” of the piece. Audiences can judge for themselves if this is a fair assessment.
Judgement is what lingers around the subject of the documentary. Any death by alcohol poisoning at the age of twenty-seven will raise questions. There is the very human desire to apportion blame. There are a number of people in this film who can be called into account, if one wishes to judge. I would argue that filmmaker Kapadia (who also made the excellent SENNA) has taken a step back from simplistic finger pointing. He has made a 128-minute feature documentary that takes us on a journey. We have shifting opinions as the tale unfolds which suggests that we are not being led by the nose. The subject didn’t live long, so we get a clear sense of the shape of her life. There are no missing years for us to puzzle over.
AMY is a fascinating study of a powerful talent who unfortunately died before she had the maturity to master the excesses of fame. This film takes us beyond the cartoon of the staggering drunk who was lampooned endlessly and gives some balance to how she will be viewed in future. Fans will be engaged, but there is also much here for the rest of us. The film is in limited release in Australian cinemas. (8/10)