Having attracted unanimous plaudits and awards success with his intensely engaging 2010 documentary Senna, about the life and death of race car paragon Ayrton Senna, British filmmaker Asif Kapadia turns his attentions to Amy Winehouse, another globally acknowledged figure whose star burnt so blindingly blight for such a short amount of time. Amy (2015), now the highest-grossing documentary in UK box-office history, adopts a similar approach to Kapadia’s previous film.
Amy charts the rise and fall of its subject through carefully edited stock footage and performances, painting a loving portrait of a difficult pop culture icon. After finding acclaim with her debut album Frank in 2003, Winehouse soon succumbed to the drink, drugs and debauched lifestyle that consumed her soon after the release of her second and final album, Back to Black. A failed marriage to Blake Fielder-Civil and several stints in rehab preceded her death in 2011 to alcohol poisoning, putting an end to a truncated career.
As publicly documented as her destructive relationship with drugs was, fuelled by the almost sadistic scrutiny of the omnipresent paparazzi, it would have been all too easy for Kapadia to mount a full-scale assault on the plainly obvious way she self-sabotaged herself. Instead he opts for a pleasingly sympathetic handling, eliminating whatever opinions or evaluations he himself may have in favour of an absorbing mission to discover who this fascinating person really was, and how fame altered her life for both the good and the bad. At one point she’s heard opining, “I wouldn’t be able to handle fame. I would go mad,” which Kapadia retains if only to highlight the bitter ensuing irony of her foresight. Amidst the film – which is as good a representation of the destructiveness of drugs, fame and power as any – is an intriguing examination of the digital age and how fandom played a large part in the public’s perception of the singer, who made no qualms about fighting back whenever confronted with intrusive camera lenses.
This is all offset by a broad range of intimate footage, from her teenage years – where her vocal talents were so glaringly obvious – to home footage from the ensuing years where fame was introduced into her world. Chris King, who award-winning previous work includes Senna, deserves major kudos for his dexterous editing abilities here, seamlessly interweaving what must have been hundreds of hours of footage into a cohesive whole. More than just hagiography, Amy is a portrait of a life lived to the very limit that offers further proof of Kapadia’s ability to do justice to such interesting but misunderstood characters thrust under the spotlight, leaving one rapt with interest about who he will focus his microscope on next.
Ed Frost | @Frost_E