Its content is already known, and its tragic context is all-too-familiar, but Amy remains a potent record of a fallen artist.
On July 2011, English singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse was found dead in her home in Camden, London. She was 27. Her premature passing recalled that of other music and movie stars gone long before their time, perishing at the intersection of excess, attention and celebrity. Her life became yet another too-common cautionary tale, though the fruits of her talents – acclaimed albums Frank and Back to Black – live on.
Just what there is left to unravel of a heartbreaking story that has already furnished news reports and filled column inches many times over may not be immediately apparent; however sometimes, what a retelling captures isn't a new take, but a coherent and compelling compilation. Amy, the documentary that pieces together a portrait of Winehouse's ascent to fame and descent into drinking, drugs and other demons, offers more of the latter than the former, but still remains a potent record of a woman who rose and then fell in too-swift succession.
As he did in his multi-award-winning Senna, filmmaker Asif Kapadia employs a treasure trove of archival materials to unspool his subject's life and death. The wealth of home video and personal voicemail at his disposal is remarkable, as is the picture he presents from their previously unseen and unheard fragments. Also combining ample media footage, Winehouse's catalogue of tunes, and interviews with her friends, family and ex-husband, as well as professional managers and minders, his film becomes one of several narratives, though they all meet the same sad end. In one, a vocally gifted teen blossoms into a star, but pays a high price for her success. In another, a woman attempts to conquer her troubles through song, struggling and self-sabotaging when she finds more in store. In yet another, the clamouring of the needy and greedy triumphs over attempts to provide genuine assistance to a person first and a performer second.
Though all three threads leave their imprint, it is the latter that proves the strongest, steeped in sorrow and pain as it is. The contrast posed by the film's early and late stages – the first rejoicing in the honesty of the pre-fame Winehouse, the second spiralling through a nightmare marked by the absence of her engaging personality long before her ultimate demise – says plenty. The details delivered at each stage, as well as in the feature's star-is-born midsection, say more, but the feeling of loss conveyed when the torrent of the titular figure's thoughts becomes a trickle trapped behind tabloid headlines is telling. Her presence remains on screen, yet her voice gets quieter, overtaken by others spinning their versions.
Indeed, eschewing talking heads is a boon for Kapadia and Amy, in an effort that also acts as a tribute. Here, the director's choice to forgo standard documentary tradition mimics the sensation of mourning: the words of others are heard, but only the face of the person lost fills the mind of the bereaved audience. Presented in such a fashion, even those previously unmoved by her vocal range are unlikely to stay that way after being given a glimpse of Winehouse's tortured reality. It's an emotive technique, but an effective one; the talent is genuine, as is the intimate account of an existence that started out as free-form as the jazz singer so clearly adored, then conformed to the script of an inevitable catastrophe.
Bringing the abundance of materials together in such striking fashion is no easy feat, and while Kapadia may be in the director's chair, considerable credit also must go to Amy's editor, Chris King. As he showed with Senna – and All This Mayhem too – his efforts are instrumental in not only honing in on Winehouse's spirit, but in making the seamless leap between a sensitive celebration of the feature's subject, a stirring indictment of the situation that resulted in her demise, and painting a shocking, though not surprising, image of modern stardom. Of course, the documentary that results may never capture the artist in the same manner as the body of work she left behind, but it comes as close to second as it can. Even with its content already known, and with its tragic context all-too-familiar, Amy plays an arresting tune that lingers long after the film ceases playing, becoming the screen equivalent of Winehouse's own haunting melodies.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Director: Asif Kapadia
UK, 2015, 128 mins
Release date: July 2