There is an unutterable sadness at the heart of Asif Kapadia’s brilliant new film about Amy Winehouse, the singer who died from alcohol poisoning in 2011 aged only 27.
Even in advance of its world premiere this weekend in a midnight screening at the Cannes festival, the film – worthy of five stars by any critical measure – has been dogged by controversy. Amy’s father, Mitch Winehouse, has spoken on British television about his unhappiness with the documentary, which he claims is unbalanced and misrepresents his own role in his daughter’s life. One of the great strengths of Amy, though, is that it doesn’t indulge in simple-minded accusations about who may or may not have been responsible for Winehouse’s untimely death.
Why did the singer go off the rails? There were many contributory factors: her parents’ separation; her lifestyle when she moved to Camden; the wayward influence of her ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil; the pressure of the enormous fame that came with her second album Back to Black; her often appalling treatment at the hands of the media and her own self-destructiveness. Kapadia realises it is far too late to be looking at where to lay blame.
Instead, starting in the late 1990s with Amy as a precocious, jazz-singing teenager in Southgate, Kapadia takes us through his subject’s life. He and his collaborators have unearthed a huge amount of home-movie footage shot by her friends as well as archive material and old photos and demos. There are also extensive interviews with many of those closest to her.
The Amy we first encounter is “a north-London Jewish girl with a lot of attitude”. She is witty and abrasive (“gobby”), an incredible jazz singer and a writer of gut-wrenchingly personal songs.
The legendary crooner Tony Bennett, with whom Winehouse collaborated late in her career, puts the best perspective on the problems that faced Winehouse as a performer. She had a voice to rival that of Billie Holiday and was at her happiest and best performing in small clubs. Jazz singers, he says, “don’t like 50,000 people in front of them”.
On one level, the film unfolds like a modern-day Rake’s Progress. Winehouse becomes richer and richer, more and more famous; and then her spectacular descent begins. The most depressing anecdote in the film comes from one of her closest childhood friends, who was at the triumphant live performance that Winehouse gave from London (when she was still undergoing treatment for drug addiction) for the 2008 Grammy telecast. The singer called her old friend out of the audience, they went backstage together and Winehouse blithely confided: “This is so boring without drugs.”
It is easy to understand why Mitch is upset by the film. “My dad was never there,” says his daughter of her childhood. Others question his decision not to put her into rehab in 2005 and there is an excruciating scene in which he turns up in St Lucia, where she is trying to hide away, with a camera crew in tow. But Kapadia isn’t making any of this up and there is no sense that he is out to demonise Mitch.
One of the paradoxes about the public’s attitude towards Winehouse, who often seems like contemporary music’s answer to Sylvia Plath, is that everyone wanted her to recover and yet still took a ghoulish pleasure in her problems. Chat-show hosts and comedians are shown joking casually about her addictions, forgetting how young and vulnerable she was.
If Winehouse had remained that jazz singer performing in small venues, her life might not have unravelled in the way that it did. Kapadia’s film is steeped in regret and grief over what became of its subject, but it never loses its sense of awe about what she achieved.
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