Bafta-winning British director Asif Kapadia made his name with his brilliant 2012 biographic documentary Senna, which told the story of the young Brazilian race driver whose early death in a crash in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix made him into a tragic icon. With Amy (2015) – which premieried at Cannes and is released int he UK this week – we have a similarly tragic chronicle of a death foretold, but whereas Senna had that one moment of horrible impact, this latest tale is the story of one long car crash. Amy Winehouse grew up in London, a Jewish girl with the voice of an old fashioned jazz singer and an emerging style that bespoke a love of a former era.
A troubled childhood saw her on anti-depressants at a young age, and we gradually learn of Amy’s emotional scars from her parents’ separation. Kapadia tells her story, her swan song if you like, employing masses of intimate interviews with friends and collaborators, and family members in voiceover, home videos, archive footage and voice mail messages. He also uses her songs and poetry to remind us of how self-aware and intelligent a woman she really was. Her lyrics had such a personal resonance that sometimes they give us almost a straight line to what is going on with her, cutting through the rationalisations and justifications of some of her circle.
With an ambitious manager and surrounded by friends, a fresh-faced Winehouse debuts with Frank in 2003. We see her in the dingy bathrooms of small joints putting on her make-up and in the back seats of cars catching some sleep. She is someone who is fully aware of the scope of her own talent and who nurtures it accordingly, as well as playing a mean game of pub pool. Her early interviews are hilarious as she refuses to compromise or soften her edges, staring with glassy contempt at an interviewer who tries to compare her to Dido. At this stage, she is an artist committed to her music and who is wary of the dangers of fame: “I couldn’t handle it. I’d go mad,” she tells one inquisitive journalist.
However, with Frank and fame comes money and indulgence and the first inklings of a talent going astray. There are many moments of missed opportunity, many ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’ and the Kapadia is not shy of pointing the finger to several members of Amy’s family who seem less than attentive to her best interests and more interested in maintaining the cash flow. With the release of Back to Black in 2006, a change of management and marriage to Blake Fielder-Civil, Amy reaches the apotheosis of her career and scales summits which increasingly take on the prospect of precipices. And yet throughout this there is the music and that voice. No less a luminary than Tony Bennett duets with her and compares her to Billy Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. But with a toxic marriage, ending in divorce and recriminations and her drug and alcohol dependency and her eating disorders ruining her health, her career begins to suffer as she becomes more famous as the punchline to a whole plethora of easy jokes, rather than the chanteuse she yearns to be. Moments of lucidity pass as she is pressured into tours she is obviously no longer equipped to deal with.
Winehouse’s refusal, or inability to sing at a Belgrade concert becoming the nadir of her professional life and leading the already feral paparazzi to frenzied appetites. Trailing condemnations from the Winehouse family, watching the finished product frankly it comes as no surprise they weren’t happy. From her mother’s inability to understand that her daughter’s new diet was obviously bulimia, to her father’s enjoyment of shared limelight, just as Senna made a villain of track officials and Alain Prost, so Amy doesn’t pull any punches in describing a preventable finale. And yet who knows? Winehouse was a singer who dwelt in pain and her demons were her own. The mass media foots some of the blame also and ourselves as morbid stand staring as they bring the body bag and shouting “Rest in peace, Amy” as if that isn’t a contradiction. Perhaps she was an old soul to young. Indeed Tony Bennett who perhaps says it best as he comments ruefully: “Life teaches you how to live, if you live long enough.”
Amy is released in UK cinemas on 3 July by Altitude.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty