“It’s all so boring without any drugs.” If any film in 2015 manages to come up with any line that’s sadder than that, I’ll be shocked and almost certainly reaching for some bleach to drink. Because hearing a friend describe Amy Winehouse’s reaction to winning a Grammy while struggling with (relative) sobriety is one of many gut-punches that make Amy a compelling documentary on the horror of celebrity.
Using almost exclusively archive footage, Amy meticulously works through the life of the singer chronologically, from the excited buzz of the journey to her first gig through to the borderline abusive voyage to her last. Immediately, her raw talent is on display – say what you want about her, but damn, she had a voice – but the impending fog of the addiction that would mar her life slowly becomes the narrative.
It’s a depressingly 21st century story. A young talent gets more attention than they can deal with and due to a combination of pressures and vices, they get pulled into a destructive cycle. This isn’t some bland PSA about not doing drugs, it’s a focus on Amy as a person; not a lesson in morality. It’s gripping, tragic and exhaustive, interviewing the recognised major players – Mitch Winehouse isn’t a fan and the film doesn’t paint him in a great light – and surprising minor ones, like Mos Def and Questlove.
The sheer volume of interviews and the depth they go into add to the feeling that Amy is a complete portrait rather than an agenda setting one. Through its subtle condemnation of the people behind her drug addiction, and the organisation of the final tour it’s implied she didn’t want to do, a version of events are proposed that will be uncomfortable for some of the people in her inner circle. Put it this way, Blake Fielder-Civil – maybe you should skip this one at the cinema.
Blimey, that’s a lot on Amy as a case study, rather than Amy as a film. It’s a testament to the team behind the film that it’s constantly engaging, despite the fact that there is only 0.18% of the population who wouldn’t know the vague outline of the Winehouse story. The presentation of archive clips with interview voice overs layered over feels a lot more natural than watching talking heads pontificate every five minutes.
In fact, it’s amazing how much director Asif Kapadia has managed to source and how well he and editor Chris King present many shades of Amy’s personality. From home videos at a 14th birthday party to photos of a DVD case with cocaine lined up on it and a nervous Amy dueting with Tony Bennett, the film succeeds at building a portrait of a real person, rather than pointless celebrity worship.
More importantly, Amy hits you with repeated force right in your emotions. Whether it’s hearing the aforementioned numbness to her successes or a drugs councillor stating that it was “almost unethical” to let her and husband Blake do rehab together… before cutting to them doing rehab together, the movie makes you feel exasperated at the amount of warning signs that people missed or more pertinently, ignored.
Amy is a documentary that represents her life as best as any could, the undeniable talent, the unavoidable flaws, the unrelenting poison of celebrity harassment of an unforgiving media. You’ll be left feeling a sadness for someone who should have been a towering legend rather than a tragic one.