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Movie review: ‘Amy’ as heady as Winehouse’s music

Published Jul 8, 2015, 8:40 pm IST
Updated Mar 28, 2019, 2:57 pm IST
The documentary explores brilliantly, the life and music of the late Amy Winehouse

Director: Asif Kapadia

Featuring: Amy and Mitch Winehouse, Nick Shymansky, Blake Fielder-Civil and others

Rating: Four stars

I watched Asif Kapadia’s Amy on Tuesday evening, a documentary about the life and music of Amy Winehouse. I went into it not knowing much about her beyond the reports of her drug and alcohol abuse, and came out, a convert to her brand of music, to her brand of personality.

 Watching the film, I was reminded of Barbara Callahan’s short story, Lavender Lady. It’s about this lovely young musician, Miranda, whose most popular song — Lavender Lady — is about a beloved nanny who tried to kidnap and murder her. The audience, unaware of the true meaning of the kyrics, loves that song so much that they demand that Miranda perform it at every concert. At first, she does — it makes her weep, but she does. The one time when she tries to not sing it, the crowd’s mood turns ugly; they boo until she concedes. Forced to sing the one song that represents her childhood nightmare, Miranda begins to unravel mentally.

Like the fictional Miranda, Amy Winehouse too drew from her own life experiences to create her songs: Her tumultuous relationship with boyfriend-then-husband Blake Fielder-Civil (as enshrined in Back to Black, Tears Dry), her friends’ attempts to get her into rehab for her drug and alcohol addictions (Rehab), her own destructive streak, “grown a mile wide” (What is It About Men?). In one part of the documentary, Winehouse’s musician friends tell us how, towards the end of her short life, she wanted to move away from the material that was representative of all her pain. But like Miranda, she too was trapped by the success those very songs had brought her.

Kapadia’s documentary puts Amy front and center, through archival footage, old interviews and concerts, home videos and her lyrics. If anyone is telling Amy’s story, she is — four years after her death from alcohol poisoning, at the age of 27. You see her first as a sassy “Jewish girl” growing up in a suburb of London, through videos taken by family and friends. Her manager — Nick Shymansky — is among her tight-knit circle. There’s some growing-up trauma explored — her parents’ separation when Amy was nine (her father, Mitch Winehouse had an extramarital affair), her mother Janis’ inability to control a headstrong Amy, a diagnosis of depression for which she was placed on medication as a teenager, bulimia that her parents chose to ignore. Despite the problems, Amy comes across as a bright spark; fun loving, wild. In a voiceover, Amy talks about knowing she was “different” (referring to her depression) but how she felt so lucky knowing that she could just pick up a guitar and feel better for an hour or two, a recourse that wasn’t available to most other people in the same position.

 Then there’s the growing fame and recognition for her music, with Nick and heads of record labels talking about how she wowed them with her talent, her pure jazz-singer voice and sensibilities. Her debut album Frank makes her a musical force to watch out for. And all the time, you know that it isn’t going to last — it’s almost on cue then, that you have footage of Amy meeting Blake Fielder-Civil. A tempestuous affair later, he returns to his girlfriend — leaving her broken, with an alcohol dependency she can no longer conceal.

Her friends and family rally round her, they insist she needs to check into rehab. Amy agrees — on the condition that her father feels the same way. But Mitch Winehouse feels there’s no need for his daughter to check into a facility, and so a chance is lost, to perhaps save Amy. The incident, as highlighted by Kapadia, shows just how literal the lyrics to her hit Rehab were (“They tried to make me go to rehab but I said, ‘No, no, no.’/Yes, I’ve been black but when I come back you’ll know, know, know/I ain’t got the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine/He’s tried to make me go to rehab but I won’t go, go, go”) The literal-ity of Amy’s lyrics is a point Kapadia makes throughout the documentary, with words from her songs floating across the screen with footage from the relevant moments that inspired them. Fielder-Civil’s desertion spawns Back to Black. And from her pain, emerge Amy’s greatest hits — the ones that propelled her to five Grammy wins and global stardom.

It also marks the definitive turning point in Amy’s life. As she features on magazine covers, Blake re-enters her life, and brings with him, his hard, drug-using lifestyle. She is quickly sucked in. And you see once bold, brash, free-spirited Amy whittling down — literally — as a person. From a healthy size, she begins to look emaciated. The beehive hairstyle she made iconic grows larger and larger; on stage, she teeters in high heels and super-tight dresses. She needs Blake to go everywhere with her (until his arrest and subsequent imprisonment), and the paparazzi is always tailing them. You need to see the constant glare — again, meant in the most literal sense — of the media spotlight, to believe it: Hundreds of cameras snapping and flashing in her face every time she steps out. There is lesser candid footage of her from this time of her life. Her older friends, her first manager Nick, are not as much part of her life now. She asks her promoter to become her new manager, a move her musician friends felt wasn’t in her best interests, because he was more interested in getting her to tour than be in the studio making music; her father — who Kapadia has tried to portray very non-judgmentally — comes across as an opportunist cashing in on his daughter’s fame and seems not to care about her spiraling out of control. Towards the end of her life, Amy appears completely isolated, except for her bodyguard. She wants to distance herself from her biggest hits (Back to Black and Rehab) and move on, but her fans and new manager won’t let her.

 Still, it seems that Amy was trying to get her life back on track, get back to her musical roots. Unfortunately, her bulimia and substance abuse had weakened her system terribly, possibly contributing to her death from accidental alcohol poisoning in July 2011. And so ended the music, the girl that Amy used to be and was trying to become once again.

Kapadia’s Amy may possibly not have the best technique — having to rely on pre-existing footage (not always of the best quality) and a few establishing shots for locations is a limitation, and the narrative mechanism he’s chosen (voiceovers of the people from Amy’s life, but not filmed on them) may not be to everyone’s liking. What makes his film a gem, is that you get to see a little of what life really was like for someone who’s considered among the greatest women musicians of all time. Amy’s was an original voice — much like Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Curt Cobain (who all died at the age of 27) — and like them, her voice too fell silent far too soon. For the space of two hours, Kapadia revives it, to be heard loud and clear and intoxicating, once again.



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