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It has been four years since Amy Winehouse’s tragic death, a woman who was one of the most talented singer/songwriters of her generation, who was also notorious due to her alcohol and drug abuse. She serves as the subject of Asif Kapadia’s multifaceted documentary.
Using mostly archival footage, personal footage and photographs, off-screen interviews with friends, family, colleagues and Winehouse herself, Amy looks at the singer’s life from a 16-year-old hot prospect, to her success on the jazz and soul scene, mainstream success and her personal and artistic life.
Amy was the result of two years worth of research and Kapadia delivers the most comprehensive documentary possible about Amy Winehouse, appealing to anyone interested in her personal or artistic life, the effects of drug abuse and a wider look at the tabloid press and paparazzi. Despite Winehouse’s death, her voice is present through all the interviews with Winehouse, her colleagues and friends.
On the surface people around Winehouse described her as a typical North London Jewish girl, having a confident stage presence and being loud and opinionated. She talks about influences like Tony Bennett and Carole King, differing from that of her peers and Winehouse rolls her eyes when an interviewer talks about Dido, when she comparing the singers. But this was a mask because she was on anti-depressants when she was 13, admitted she was bulimic at 15, and as she says in the documentary ‘I write songs because I’m fucked up in the head’. Anyone who has experienced mental health issues can easily empathize and identify with the issues depicted, as many people hide it and try to act normal, and not show they have a condition. Art often acts as a coping mechanism, whether its music, drawing, writing, comedy, etc….
Winehouse’s relationships are also explored, particularly with her father and husband Blake Fielder. The thesis presented is that they are partly responsible for damaging Winehouse’s psyche: Winehouse’s father Mitch, was an absentee father who made numerous bad decisions while Fielder led Winehouse into drinking and drugs. As the documentary progresses, and we learn more about this background it adds extra meaning to some of Winehouse’s most famous songs. Mitch Winehouse has disowned the documentary, calling it a disgrace because of how he is portrayed. He comes off like a Joe Jackson figure and Fielder was basically who Bobby Brown was for Whitney Houston, leading Winehouse down a disastrous path.
The other theme is the look at British tabloids and paparazzi, showing them for the vultures that they are, and general celebrity news and culture. Winehouse says that she would not be able to cope with being a celebrity and it would drive her to death – a haunting prediction. The paparazzi and the British media’s obsession with the private lives of celebrities is condemned, leaching off the pain and suffering of other people. People who were around at the time will remember Winehouse became a source of ridicule and it was perpetuated by the media, feeding on stories about her. The public couldn’t get enough, seeing it as a trainwreck.
Kapadia uses an wide library of achieved footage, recordings and demos, interviews and Winehouse’s personal writing as he explores the life of the trouble singer. He had access to home video footage, starting the movie with a video 14-year-old Amy singing ‘Happy Birthday’ and uses rare recordings like Winehouse singing ‘Moon River’ with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra when she was 16 and recording demos for record companies with her hand writing lyrics being superimposed onto the screen. Through the footage, photos and recordings that we see Winehouse’s evolution as a person and an artist, changing musical styles from niche jazz and soul to something more varied when she became a part of the Club Trash scene. Her appearance changing during this period from being a ordinary looking young woman to her distinctive style that she became known for and the toll drugs and alcohol has on her physically and mentally.
Amy is a highly detailed documentary that looks at all aspects of Winehouse’s life. Its approach, looking at her music, addiction and mental issues and publicity struggles will resonant with audience members in some form and allows us to see the woman behind the headlines.