British filmmaker Asif Kapadia achieved plaudits for his feature debut, the fictional The Warrior, but is best known for his 2010 BAFTA winning documentary Senna. Senna is the gripping and moving story of the influential Brazilian Formula One champion who died aged 34 in a horrific accident at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. While Formula One tales have a built-in audience, you did not need to be a racing fan to be moved by that biopic, told almost exclusively through brilliantly edited video footage, newsreels and photographs.
Kapadia’s follow-up, Amy, about the singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse, is another powerful documentary biopic with a built-in audience that transcends its subject matter to tell a sad story of an individual who fell victim to her prodigious talent – and need for love. While Amy’s short life (she died aged 27), and death from alcohol poisoning 4 years ago this month is marked by controversy, Kapadia focuses on the versatile singer and her Grammy-winning songs.
As with Senna, Kapadia and his editor Chris King have compiled a fascinating blend of video footage (some previously unseen), newsreels, photographs and interviews (off and on camera) to form a strong narrative, constructed like a Shakespearean tragedy. Audiences will form their own views on just who are the heroes and who the villains, however it is clear that the heroine’s tragic flaw was her love of music, need to express herself through lyrics and her need for love.
Amy’s father, Mitch Winehouse, has criticised the film for portraying him as a villain by ‘unbalanced’ editing. But Kapadia did not make up Amy’s despair when the father she ‘worshipped’ invited a camera crew along to record the exhausted performer’s rest cure in St Lucia. Nor is it easy to warm to Amy’s husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, who has admitted to supplying Amy with heroin and was in jail during the final months of Amy’s life,
In keeping with a Shakespearean tragedy, however, Kapadia gives Amy the strongest voice. He does this through recordings from her interviews, her heart-breaking songs, and her revealing, autobiographical lyrics, which are written, in cursive writing, on the screen. Song titles such as ‘Back to Black, ‘You know I’m no Good,’ ‘Tears Dry on their Own’, ‘Rehab’ and ‘Love is a Losing Game’ are the landmarks in the tale of a woman who turned her sadness into poetic gold but could not harness it.
Amy’s childhood in a North London Jewish community looks ordinary enough in the home movie clips of a healthy young girl fooling around with friends and family. The contrast between the girl who tells us, ‘I didn’t think music would be a career choice’ to the painfully thin, bulimic, heavily-tattooed and made up woman being booed off the stage in Dubai when she could barely stand up, is striking.
But Amy’s alcoholism and drug taking were the symptoms of a deeper problem. She was profoundly affected by her father’s infidelity when she was young and her parents’ divorce, ‘going wild’ in her teens. Though Amy recollects that Mitch was ‘never around’ during her childhood, it seems that he was around a great deal when she became famous. The film shows him scheduling tours against doctors’ orders to ‘honour contracts’ and quotes from Amy’s first manager, Nick Shymansky, who blames Mitch for telling Amy that she did not have to go into rehab at a crucial stage. Amy fired the caring and responsible Shymansky, taking the controversial decision to replace him with her concert promoter – who obviously had a vested interest in keeping her on the road.
On the promotional tour for her Mercury Prize-nominated 2003 debut album, Frank, Winehouse says, ‘I don’t think I’m going to be at all famous. I couldn’t handle it. I’d go mad.’ If only the fame machine had allowed her to remain true to her own self as Shakespeare recommended. In a short time she became an international star, in 2008 tying the record for most Grammy wins (5) by a female artist. Everything she wrote and sang turned to gold, but, as she predicted, she couldn’t handle the consequences.