Back in the mid noughties, Amy Winehouse was more than just a name. Through a meteoric rise to fame, followed by a descent into drugs, she became the punchline to your jokes. A shorthand description of someone off their face. A tabloid’s favourite front page. Much like her most defining song ‘Rehab’, Amy is equal parts defiant and heartbreaking. We now can look back and lament about the negatives, the what-ifs, the counterfactual realities – yet all these thoughts fall into bitter irrelevance. This is the film Amy Winehouse deserved; it’s just a shame she’s not around to see it.
There is something about Amy Winehouse, even now, that draws people in. From the morbid fascination spun by the press to the sheer magnetism of her personality, it seems we cannot help but watch her. Asif Kapadia knows this. Far from playing into the myth, he asks us to unravel it. Amy is a piece of exquisite construction, opening on home video footage that slowly melts away as bombastic, haunting paparazzi shots take hold. On top of this, we hear voiceovers from Amy’s close friends and family; her first manager, her parents, her childhood friends. These voices underscore and often subvert what we’re seeing onscreen. We see Amy and husband Blake Fielder-Civil enter a rehabilitation clinic, and we see them leave, all from the just-far-enough-away perspective of a paparazzi camera. It could so easily be ‘the Amy Winehouse story’ all over again.
Yet this time, we become involved in the story. We hear it uncensored by the people who were there, and who knew. We hear the truth behind that song and behind the news stories, and it becomes all the more real. This is not a tale of modern woe for a celebrity, but a tragic tale of a woman lost in this world.
The tragedy stems not from simply highlighting Winehouse’s weaknesses. The true heartbreak that Kapadia exposes is why the facts are the way they are. Through skin-crawling footage of drug dens and clinics, we hear about how it was exactly footage like this that drove her to need help at all.
Kapadia’s greatest achievement throughout Amy is to never nail down who was to blame for all this. Through his film, it’s possible to rediscover the human behind the name. From the bottom, to the top, and back, we follow Amy’s career with her. Through an incredible journey that few could truly survive, Winehouse becomes a fully-realised individual. A funny, blunt, soft, gifted and flawed talent.
That gift – so often taken for granted during her lifetime – is gorgeously celebrated by Kapadia. For despite the plethora of footage, the music was the most honest expression Winehouse offered the world. With a soundtrack consisting of unreleased songs, as well as the lyrics appearing onscreen in Winehouse’s handwriting, Kapadia highlights her mastery. She often used to jab at Top 40 artists who sang songs of nonsense jubilation, yet as the words creep on screen – you get her. As these lyrics of incredible quality appear at the key moments of her life, the shiver is unbelievable. You understand who they’re for, what they’re about, and just what makes the lyrics so beautiful. Those songs will never sound the same again.
Although Amy’s father Mitch has spoken out against the negative light shed upon him, he recognises the film’s key achievement: showcasing Amy Winehouse as who she was. That’s a pretty high compliment, all things considered.
Amy is more than a film about a singer. It’s more than a film about addiction, or love, or music, or how sad it was that a talent like hers was lost so young. Asif Kapadia told The Guardian: “it’s not just about her anymore, it’s about us.” Watching the slow change from home videos, lovingly shot for a laugh by friends and family, to the uproar from camera-wielding strangers every time she left the house, you can’t help but feel culpable – for every joke at her expense you snickered at, every story about her you read.
You know what the outcome of this story is; you lived through the news, you saw it on TV. But it still flips your stomach when you realise that she’s dead; even makes it more hard-hitting. We see this moment in the context of her actual life, not the version of her life in the press. That’s what the film does best. It gives Amy back her own story.