With 2010’s Senna, Asif Kapadia pioneered a form of documentary we might call Frankensteinian: it took a story that was effectively dead – in that we knew its tragic outcome – and jolted its subject back to life via a skilful stitching together of raw materials, spare parts. (The disembodied voices of friends and family on the soundtrack provided all the charge Kapadia required to transform documentary science into deeply moving art.) With follow-up Amy – which, given the prominence accorded to a beehive hairdo, could almost be Kapadia’s Bride of Frankenstein – the technique is pushed into trickier territory.
The timelag of nearly two decades between Senna’s death and Kapadia’s film allowed the initial grief to subside, and elements of the narrative to be forgotten and rediscovered; the rise and fall of Amy Winehouse (b. 1984 – d. 2011) was a more recent, wounding phenomenon, and for much of it, its subject was squarely in the public eye. Any account therefore risks coming in between redundant and ghoulish; Kapadia, to his credit, has taken Amy’s story as the basis of a very contemporary and instructive tragedy.
We first join Ms. Winehouse around the millennium, larking with pals and exhibiting a personality that, though clearly still under construction, is nevertheless immediately recognisable: here is both a star, and a disaster, waiting to happen. The abundant home video footage Kapadia and editor Chris King collate establishes Amy as a child of the MySpace generation, for whom self-documentation would be second nature: time and again, the film finds its subject on a tour bus, in a rehearsal space, backstage, having her spots concealed or that beehive touched up.
This quest for “the real Amy” is central to a story tied in with notions of authenticity, that holy grail of the music biz. We’re reminded that Winehouse came of age at the moment of Fame Academy (her flyers go up between those of B2K and the So Solid Crew, freezing the singer in time) and that her voice and attitude came as a counterblast to the tweeness of Dido’s Home Counties balladry. (One irony, which speaks to the 21st century’s all-encompassing corporate culture: Winehouse was first signed by S Club supremo Simon Fuller.)
As her career takes off over the next half-decade, certain sights and sounds recur: a succession of sketchy – usually older – boyfriends (popcorn psychologists will have a field day analysing Amy’s relationship with her father Mitch), and a string of nakedly confessional lyrics, which Kapadia puts up on screen as keys to this story’s causality – he wants us to both hear and see where Amy was coming from.
As a student of Nina and Billie, did she feel she had to suffer to ensure the continuation of her art? The question hovers even before the emergence of addled paramour Blake Fielder-Civil, who could scarcely appear less of a bellend if he had the word “bellend” embossed in flashing neon on the front of his pork pie hat. Granted, Blake gave her the substance of “Back to Black” – but wouldn’t we rather have her alive? And doesn’t that album’s success say something unsettling about the way so many identified with its tales of no-good men?
As in Senna, Kapadia sets us to wondering how much this tragedy was inevitable, and how much was preventable. Swap in dependency issues for Ayrton’s need for speed, and you’d have much the same trajectory – that of an individual who pushed (or was pushed) too far in pursuing their passion – though our knowledge of what’s coming affords precious little comfort: once again, we’re hurtling towards a crash barrier at 200mph.
Watching this girl degenerate over two hours from full-faced, gobby life of the party to bleary-eyed, inarticulate wraith, stumbling about on stage with no discernible purpose makes for a vivid yet chastening experience: you’ll either be saddened or angered by the sight of a vulnerable young woman surrounded, at every stage of her public existence, by rampant self-interest. Beneath the foghorn booming out “Rehab”, Kapadia sounds his own quiet, sobering note of caution: leave it, Jake, it’s showbusiness.
(MovieMail, May 2015)
Amy screens on Channel 4 at 10pm tonight.