Amy review: Asif Kapadia’s compelling documentary on the singer behind the beehive

By Sarakshi Rai for FirstPost here. 

There’s not a lot to grasp in Asif Kapadia’s Amy, a documentary on singer Amy Winehouse. It’s a classic story of a talented young woman from an unremarkable background, her subsequent rise to fame and then a dramatic descent into a drug-fuelled haze, punctuated with interludes about people around her who saw her as a meal ticket. She’s this generation’s Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain, (all of whom died at 27) — a swift rise of a supreme talent and an equally swift drug and fame-fuelled fall.

Although Amy is sympathetic to Winehouse, it tries for balance. There are villains like her father and her ex-husband, but the film also shows Winehouse’s personal predilection for the dark side of drugs and alcohol. In the course of the documentary, she is stripped and peeled of her carefully crafted layers, her beehive and her elaborate cat eyes, until you see the real, vulnerable woman under those facades; a woman who just wanted to be loved.

Amy begins in 1998 with Winehouse and her friend Juliette Ashby, at the 14th birthday party for another friend, Lauren Gilbert. The girls giggle over lollipops and unlit cigarettes, sing “Happy Birthday” to Gilbert — until Winehouse joins in. Then they all fall silent and let her sing the rest of it solo, because even at age 14, Amy Winehouse was nothing short of mesmerising.

The signs that something was awry were all there. At 15, her mother narrates how Winehouse struggled with her weight and told her mother that she’d found a great new diet that let her eat all she wanted because later, she could just throw up all of it. Her bulimia, then deemed a passing phase, turns out to be something that she struggles with for the rest of her life. Right before she’s at the height of fame, spiralling out of control, her father Mitch Winehouse decides she doesn’t need to go to rehab, despite protests from her close friends. Her friend and former manager Nick Shymansky points to that moment as one that just might have changed Winehouse’s story. As it stands, it’s the moment that would inspire one of Winehouse’s biggest hits, “Rehab.”

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Kapadia has pieced together Winehouse’s life using home videos, candid footage, personal recordings, cellphone videos and paparazzi shots, which lends such a powerful intimacy to the film that you feel as though you’re living it with her — along with all her addictions. It’s like walking next to a ticking time bomb, as we see her grow up too fast and hurtle from bulimia to fame to a love affair that introduces her to crack cocaine and heroin.

True to the classic rockstar biopic, there’s a destructive love story too, between Winehouse and her ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil. “I fell in love with someone I could die for. And that’s a real drug, innit?” she says in the film. There are photos of Winehouse doing a cocktail of drugs and alcohol — heroin on silver foil, smeared mascara, cut up and bloodied because she “wanted to be on the same plane” as husband Fielder-Civil, fearing if she didn’t then, “he would here and she, there.”

Perhaps because she had a voice that was powerfully mature and wrote songs that were rich with experience, we tend to forget that at the height of her success, Winehouse was just in her early 20’s. At a time when most young people need and get love and guidance, she was left to her own devices. There are times during the film when you want to shake the people around her and yell at them to make them break out of their own selfishness.

Like when after her first major overdose in 2007, her friends beg her father to take away her passport, but Mitch Winehouse points out she’s under contract to fulfil an American tour. Or when in 2009, she retreated to St Lucia in an attempt to kick her addiction, and her father invited a camera crew to record footage for a documentary (later aired as British reality TV).

Yet for all the drama of the excesses, one of the most beautiful moments in the documentary is of Winehouse recording a duet with Tony Bennett, one of her childhood idols. It was one of her last times in a recording studio. You see a visibly nervous Winehouse struggling through the session. But Bennett is gentle and calming, and that softness brings out Winehouse’s ability to fill words with visceral emotion. He tells her when they’re done that he’s like her in the way they think about singing. She shakes her head and says, “I’m like you. You’re not like me. I’m like you.”

In an interview after the release of her first album, long before she became a celebrity, Winehouse said, “I don’t think I’m going to be at all famous. I don’t think I can handle it. I’d probably go mad.” It breaks your heart because, as Amyshows, she was right.

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