On October 28th, the highest grossing British documentary of all time, Amy, will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray in Australia. The film chronicles the life – and tragic loss – of UK singer Amy Winehouse. Earlier this year, writer Carina Nilma headed along to the Sydney Film Festival to witness the first Australian screening of the film.
For singer/songwriter and musician Amy Winehouse, the last couple of years of her life were fodder for tabloids and the entertainment news machine monster. Even those who weren’t a fan of her music were familiar with her and her drug-fuelled antics. Antics that often overlooked her music. In the documentary Amy, Director Asif Kapadia turns our attention – as much as he can – to her music, delivering a flim which has both heart-warming and heart-breaking results.
Kapadia, alongside producer James Gay Rees, were the team behind the BAFTA winning documentary Senna, teaming up here to tackle another celebrity biopic. This time, their focus is on somebody who was touted as a musical genius and remains respected amongst her music industry peers long after her untimely passing.
The film starts by introducing us to an 18 year old Amy Winehouse. We meet a young woman who has already begun her music career, playing small jazz clubs with her sights firmly set on becoming a successful artist. Winehouse knows she has talent but at the same time she wavers with occasional self-doubt, particularly with her songwriting – yet she perseveres. Her friend and soon-to-be manager Nick Schmansky steers her and fellow friends/bandmates as their fledgling career starts to gain momentum.
As the film progresses we are introduced (generally via interview voiceover) to people who played key parts in Winehouse’s life. Her long term best friendn Juliette Ashby, her collaborator Salaam Remi, her ex-husband Blake Feilder-Civil and her father Mitch Winehouse, to name but a few. All of them share particular memories of her or recount specific incidents, providing their own recollections of how events in Winehouse’s life played out.
The utterly wonderful and beautiful thing about this documentary is how Amy Winehouse’s music not only serves as the soundtrack but becomes a character in itself. Her songs were deeply personal and often written about specific people or periods in her life. The songs then timestamp these events in her life, with the film providing an even richer and deeper context to their origin.
“Stronger Than Me” is the track that heralded her entry into the British music scene, with its jazz funk vibe and Winehouse’s signature powerful vocals leading the charge. The album Frank truly showcased her interest in the jazz genre and her various musical collaborators and industry representatives at the time commented on how her sound and soul was akin to that of a 60 year old jazz aficionado in the body a young feisty Jewish woman from North London. Even respected musical producers like Mark Ronson or Questlove are quoted as saying that they were schooled on aspects of jazz, soul, and funk music that they’d never experienced by the younger Winehouse.
The powerhouse album Back To Black and its tracks feature predominantly with songs like “You Know I’m No Good”, “Some Unholy War” and “Love Is A Losing Game” all marking critical moments in Winehouse’s rollercoaster love life with Blake Feilder-Civil. Then of course there’s “Rehab” – that is far too self-explanatory. But her heart always belonged to jazz and this was cemented by a collaborative album with Tony Bennett that was the last time she’d record material with another artist. It was released posthumously. Songs from Lioness: Hidden Treasures also feature, but the album title itself is not specifically referenced.
A little over half of the film covers her career, from its beginnings to her mainstream popularity. It’s not until we tick well over the halfway mark that we start to delve into her personal affairs and how her problems that were mildly present in her youth soon rear their ugly heads. Depression, bulimia, alcohol addiction, drug addiction, her egomania that could then be swapped for self-doubt. Winehouse suffered all of these things in a far too public spotlight.
Interestingly, there’s a moment early in the film where during one of Winehouse’s early radio interviews – recorded while promoting “Stronger Than Me” – she’s asked about fame and how she would cope and she flat out replies that she would probably go mad and possibly kill herself as she doesn’t believe she’d be able to deal with it. It’s chillingly foreboding to hear that interview and to know what was to come for her. And even though those close to her, like Ashby or Schmansky, urged her to seek professional help, she chose to follow the advice of her father Mitch or her husband Blake, who either didn’t believe she had a problem or were feeding her addiction. And what we’re left is a heartbreakingly tragic end to a young life so full of talent and promise cut short.
What is most inspiring about this film is how once the credits roll you get this overwhelming feeling of sadness. All death is sad, but the death of somebody relatively young (she’s a member of the infamous “27 Club”) who should’ve had a long life ahead of her. Not to mention her abundant talent and musical gift that had so much potential for even greater things. It seems to reiterate how much of a tragedy it is, and how it seemed like such a waste.
The film does a great job of generally remaining relatively objective, sticking to facts that are supported by the testimony of family and friends. Although there does seem to be a feeling emanating that both Mitch and Blake were to a degree culpable for Amy’s end, whether you agree or disagree on that point it doesn’t matter. The end result is still the same, a life lost.
Even for those who aren’t fans of her music, this is a fascinating film to watch and some of the raw footage of her early performances are a joy to see. Sadly we’ll never know what could have been.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Amy is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on October 28th.