Many people will go into Amy with only a basic knowledge of Amy Winehouse. They’ll know that she was a troubled star with an amazing voice, and of her problems with drugs, and knowing that she died of alcohol poisoning in 2011.
Amy is not a biopic, it’s a documentary composed of mobile phone footage, home movies and archive footage. You’d usually expect such a documentary to feel out of place on the big screen but this is not the case. In fact, it reminds you that, contrary to Hollywood’s obsession with flashy graphics, you don’t need beautiful cinematography and draw dropping CGI to effectively tell a story.
There is still a cinematic quality to the way the documentary is compiled. Notably, the absence of talking heads distances it from the television – perhaps ironically referred to in some phone footage in which Amy says that she looks like a floating head on the screen. Director Asif Kapadia has talked about the lack of talking heads being due to interviewing the film’s contributors without a camera so as to put them at ease. This move pays off two fold as the interviews are staggering in their emotional depth, and the film truly belongs on the big screen.
The few moments of the film that aren’t filled with exquisitely edited archive footage, feature cinematic shots of the locations of Amy’s story. These bright images glide over Camden, contrasting the gritty, dark images which make up the bulk of the film. The omnipresent quality of these shots constantly reminds you that this is a story which the film makers are looking back on, a story which has already happened and which has an inevitable ending. They give the film a cinematic twist and distance the film from the constant invasive style of the archive documentary footage it samples and the gut-wrenching abuse the paparazzi are seen to put Amy through.
Obviously the film makes use of Amy’s music, but it isn’t a case of lazily sticking in a track to divide the different parts on the film. The tracks used are often live performances or videos of her recording – clips which give far greater insight than any studio track could. Although it is initially reminiscent of Youtube lyrics videos, the use of on screen lyrics draws attention to them and their intensely personal nature. The songs were Amy’s way of telling her story, and realising this makes it feel perverse to listen to them as a form of entertainment. Rehab, Amy’s biggest hit, is a song that everyone knows the story of. It was well documented in the media that they did try and make her go to rehab, and that she said ‘No, no, no.’ The film shows that Rehab marked a turning point in her life, a point at which she could potentially have been saved from her fate. That’s one interpretation of what happens on the screen, not the words of the documentary makers, who stay silent throughout, allowing those who knew Amy to tell the story.
We hear from pretty much everyone over the course of the film; her parents, childhood friends, collaborators, manager, and more. The film paints some clear villains, but it doesn’t appear to have an agenda to do so, as it was their own candid words that condemned Amy’s father Mitch and ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil. Most importantly, we hear from Amy. As a celebrity, she was talked about more than she talked, but the previously unseen private footage in Amy shows what the paparazzi could never capture: her personality. The film starts with Amy singing happy birthday to her friends, pre-record deal, pre-fame, pre-beehive. The cliché rings true: she was just a normal girl, and we’re introduced to her as such. We see her cheeky sense of humour, we hear her describing her love of jazz music, and on several occasions she makes eerie premonitions; in one scene she says that, if she ever became famous, she wouldn’t be able to cope with it, she’d go mad. Equally haunting are the many moments where, with the benefit of hindsight, you watch things go so horribly wrong when it could so easily have been avoided, moments where you wish you could reach into the film and save her, moments like her mother explaining that Amy had told her about a ‘great new diet where I just eat what I like and then throw it all up again’ but not doing anything about it because she thought it was just a phase.
After the initial introduction to the ordinary Amy, moments like these come thick and fast. Just as you think Amy is going to be ok, you are painfully yanked back to reality. It’s easy to throw around phrases like ‘haunting’ and ‘gut wrenching’ but there was a point where I truly felt my heart suddenly sink, the point at which Amy has got herself clean for the Grammys and then wins one. We see the genuinely awe-struck look on her face, the apparent disbelieving joy when her idol Tony Bennett announces it. Then the voiceover of her childhood friend cuts in and narrates as Amy pulls her backstage in apparent euphoria, before telling her that all of it is boring without the drugs.
The film perfectly combines all these different sources to truly get to know Amy Winehouse. Although she lives on in a collage of memories, footage, interviews and music, the simple inevitable ending is a fresh tragedy as she seems to die for a second time.