PLOT: The life of Amy Winehouse, through her career as a Grammy-winning superstar, through her sad decline into drug addiction and death at twenty-seven years old.
REVIEW: Asif Kapadia' AMY is one of the year's most surprising films. While I was definitely aware of Amy Winehouse at the peak of her popularity, I'll admit that I didn't have that much respect for her. Harsh? Yes – admittedly that judgement was harsh and probably short-sighted given her amazing talent. But, as a person she was an absolute trainwreck, and from the stories presented in Kapadia's film, it seems miraculous that she even made it to twenty-seven.
Yet, even though the film never shies away from her numerous struggles with sobriety and self-destructiveness, this isn't a trashy gutter-doc that revels in the chaos of her life. Rather, its a celebration of her talent and even her harshest critics will walk away from this with both new appreciation for her work, and a real sense of sadness about the fact that she never got to fulfill her almost endless potential.
Winehouse is indeed a fascinating, tragic figure. While complicated, it doesn't seem like she was ever malicious or especially egotistical. Rather, the portrait that emerges here is of a person just absolutely incapable of handling the pressures of fame and someone who was treated as a commodity by her management, lovers and – most devastatingly – her family.
Like Kapadia's SENNA, this is extremely cinematic for a documentary. Kapadia never seems to approach his documentaries in a conventional fashion. As such, he has no use for talking heads and relies completely on footage culled from a number of sources – most significantly Winehouse's own archives. Conveniently for his film, Winehouse was one of those people that – at least in her early years – tended to chronicle everything on video. Like in the recent KURT COBAIN: MONTAGE OF HECK, you get a real sense through this is what Winehouse was like as a person and it seems she was playful, often brilliant, but also incredibly shy and someone that was unable to keep her emotions in check. The latter arguably helped her career, as she poured her heartache into her songs. But, in her personal life this led to disaster, and Kapadia seems to have no qualms in blaming Winehouse's downfall on two people: her husband Blake Fielder and her father Mitchell.
While none of us will never know the whole truth, the evidence provided here is damning for both men. Fielder more or less admits to his part in her addiction, while Mitchell Winehouse has trashed Kapadia's film for portraying him as a monster – which it doesn't. Rather, he's portrayed as simply someone too wrapped up in his own secondary fame, and like everyone else he views her as a commodity. Winehouse famously sang in 'Rehab' “my daddy thinks I'm fine...” and this refers to the fact that her father prevented her from entering rehab at the start of her addiction, which her first, loyal manager and friends think was the disaster that set her on the wrong path. Even worse, we see him take a reality-show crew to an island where Winehouse has taken refuge while trying to get clean, airing her struggles with sobriety for the whole world to see.
Even still, it's not only the people involved in Winehouse's decline that makes this a tragedy. What's so sad is that Winehouse was such a brilliant singer-songwriter, but simply could not continue writing or performing as her addictions took hold. One of the saddest moments is watching Winehouse struggle to keep up with her idol Tony Bennett in a duet, even though she's being harder on herself than she should have been as Bennett clearly thought she was brilliant and told her so. In the end, she didn't seem to believe him and the media didn't either, with heartbreaking montages of cruel late-night jokes about her downfall giving the film a bitterness that makes it clear Kapadia has nothing but respect for his subject and contempt for those who exploited her – which at times included her fans.
In the end, Kapadia's made one of the rare showbiz documentaries that will no doubt lead to a complete re-evaluation of his subject's life and career. This will likely to have a long shelf life as it looks like it'll inevitably be a best documentary contender at the Oscars. Even if you're not a fan, AMY is really a must see, with the message being something us fans should never lose sight of, which is that our idols maybe seem larger-than-life but are ultimately as human as any one of us.