‘Amy’ (2015) Movie Review

ON


Home video of Amy Winehouse
A24

Asif Kapadia‘s power is a quiet one, particularly with his latest documentary, Amy, a somber and appropriately lyrical examination of lost talent and unearned potential from the late 27-year-old jazz singer Amy Winehouse. Kapadia uses his refined talents to his full advantage, archiving a wealth of home footage and unbridled access to those who knew and loved the “Rehab” singer the most to create a deftly insightful look into an artist so few knew beyond the tabloids.

It’s empathetic, sure, but Kapadia doesn’t let sensitivity dictate the story until the end, when the emotions are not only earned but have flourished. He’s also not afraid to examine the details which lead to her demise with stern focus and concentrated attention, rarely sugarcoating the problems in her life and those directly, and indirectly, responsible.

It’s easy to say Winehouse’s tragedy stemmed from a lack of attention she so desperately sought and needed. Kapadia’s bravery, however, comes from exploring an alternative, an idea her self-destructive problems may have been too far out of anyone’s control. Kapadia paints Winehouse as an old soul but a lost child. She’s talented beyond her years lyrically and physically.

In trying to grasp onto love and affection, did Winehouse lose sight of those who actually cared and championed her along the way? It’s a wrenching story, filled with candid looks at her personal life which benefit from Kapadia wisely letting Winehouse herself — through her past actions and words — tell us what we really need to know about her short life.

Every interview, be it from her ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, various friends, managers, parents, doctors or even celebrity friends like yasiin bey, formally Mos Def, is heard in the background, as the compiled footage and pictures speak volumes. These voices provide the emotions, but don’t drive them. Much like Kapadia’s last film, Senna, Amy lets the extraordinary archive of footage uncovered show us what happened instead of simply telling us the story verbally — a fatal flaw in most of these documentaries. We live in these past moments, watching Winehouse rise-and-fall-and-rise again just before tragedy strikes. This balances the human Amy was and the music she created all the same, with neither overtaking the story.

On the whole, Amy is more illuminating than it is captivating. Kapadia does an effective job of making himself an observer more than an intruder, yet one never feels especially invited into Winehouse’s life, and this takes away from getting completely invested into her life story. History often repeats itself and to error is human, so nothing here is especially new or particularly alarming. But that’s not the director’s main point, it would seem. Kapadia doesn’t convince us Winehouse was on par with artists such as Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison, both of which died at the same age, but he does convey the reality of the situation in a way most have only dramatized before.

Amy is an invitation in the celebrity world few see. Never once is Winehouse’s life — even as a celebrity — glamorized. Even as she’s collecting Grammys or singing a ditty with her idol, Tony Bennett, an aching pain buried inside our subject is displayed and communicated efficiently at each moment. She either wanted to be the best she could be or not be anything at all, and watching her deteriorate emotionally or physically is something that’s hard not to get shaken by.

It’ll never be clear what really caused Winehouse’s downfall. Her daddy issues, bulimia, mental demons, drug and alcohol abuse, poor guidance, media overloads and her insecure character all play a factor of some sort, and Kapadia uses these aspects of her character to make an undoubtedly affective account of an artist known mostly for her one-and-done hit and abusive tendencies. Respectfully intimate and equally melancholy, Amy is a highly accessible and intelligently handled examination of a singer whose problems exceeded simple analysis that can be appreciated by those who barely knew her equally as much by those who knew her better than she did.