Rating: R | Runtime: 128 minutes | Release Date: July 3rd, 2015 (USA)
Director(s): Asif Kapadia
“Love is a losing game”
I think perhaps I’m tapped out where it comes to stories about musicians’ tragic lives. Binging on “Behind the Music” during my teens probably doesn’t help matters and seeing Montage of Heck earlier this year carries no favors either. Asif Kapadia‘s Amy seeks to do the same thing Brett Morgen did on that Kurt Cobain documentary with Amy Winehouse, but it doesn’t find the same impactful intrigue. It’s weird because I do feel like this is a very similar film to his previous effort Senna and yet I found that one much more compelling. Maybe it’s that Winehouse’s devolution was preventable and surrounded by people who failed her at every turn—something hardly new to music industry celebrities. Or perhaps it’s that the film doesn’t provide anything new.
Kapadia undertook a hundred-plus hours of current interviews and got permission from family and friends to include intimate recordings of her formidable years straight on through the mess crack and heroin made of her life, but we knew this. The media exploited it relentlessly and we saw the photographic results of those paparazzi flashbulbs blinding us as they printed. What about Amy didn’t we know and does anything set her apart? The difficult, objective answer is unfortunately nothing. That’s no disrespect to her talent or heart since Kapadia ensures our soul aches for how this shy Jewish girl spiraled out of control. I just mean that many greats followed an identical path before her. This isn’t a cautionary tale, it’s merely another notch on rock and roll’s belt.
I therefore began watching Amy not as insight into a troubled genius, but as a scathing account of humanity’s greed. The voices heard—always over archived footage since we never see present-day subjects being recorded posthumously—are speaking less about the deceased and more about themselves not being at fault. That’s a crude generalization for people like ex-manager Nick Shymansky or BFFs Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert who truly did care, but their tough love and attempts to get Amy help before fame blew her up with Back to Black play as more “I’m not to blame, they are” when juxtaposed against the remorselessness of Winehouse’s father Mitch and husband Blake Fielder-Civil. Kapadia’s true success is making these two clueless SOBs look complicit enough to formally press charges.
Their cavalier attitude is abhorrent and proves the most interesting plot thread of Winehouse’s saga. What a find listening to those involved and seeing the differing views of what happened—Nick kidnapping Amy to force rehab and her letting Mitch decide despite him stating years later that it was she who didn’t want help—and yet it’s given equal weight to the mundane aspects of celebrity life. This is a personal preference, but the film I wished this would be is one that focuses on Mitch and Blake’s willfully destructive nature. We receive damning testimony from doctors saying how it was unethical for someone to treat Amy and Blake at the same clinic, but Kapadia not taking a side—while commendable—makes the revelation another throwaway tidbit.
I get the film is painting a portrait of Amy Winehouse and to fans it comprehensively supplies a definitive account, but for me it’s a missed opportunity to overtly talk about celebrity pressure with fame and the media assisting in the dismantling of good people. This stuff isn’t just facts in her life like what she got for her tenth birthday; it’s a direct cause of her death. We get inklings of Mitch’s fame whoring by bringing a camera crew to exploit her rather than be a father, but this couldn’t have been an isolated incident. It almost comes across as though Mitch only agreed to talk to Kapadia if he wasn’t explicitly fingered as a cause of her demise. The same goes with Blake escalating her addiction.
The result is more puff piece than crucial—a compilation of interviews and behind the scenes footage showing exactly what we’ve already seen. You can’t even say that it’s in her own words since she isn’t filming or recording herself. We don’t delve into her diaries like Montage of Heck or Listen to Me Marlon, everything is through the filter of entertainment. Amy is trying to make the camera-holders laugh by being cute in her early years and later-on she becomes so used to paparazzi that her steely look of indifference is anything but candid. So little of the footage is without artifice that I think it would have been better served to acknowledge this fact. Show us how the media and fans turned her into a commodity.
Focus on Mitch and Blake leeching off her for their own fix. Get deeper into the mind of acting manager Raye Cosbert and press him on details like his supposedly telling Amy not to go to Belgrade and her wanting to despite everyone saying hated the idea of that tour. To include this juicy side of recklessness you must go further. If you just wanted to tell a story about a sweet girl with a great voice who had so much to offer, stick to bodyguard Andrew Morris and producer Salaam Remi—their memories of her are great. Winehouse’s life was much darker than all that, though. Dark enough that you cannot just dip a toe in the water and stop. Kapadia never fully submerges.
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