November 6, 2015

FILM REVIEW: Amy (2015)

Director: Asif Kapadia
Starring: Amy Winehouse
★★★½ 3.5/5

Winehouse obsessive Asif Kapadia’s documentary hits cinemas four years after the star’s early death. What felt in equal parts shocking, mysterious and inevitable in 2011 has been largely left alone apart from the usual hyenas picking over tragic deaths for tasty morsels and giggles, and – for the most part – Kapadia’s narrative marks a relief from that, although the shadow of ‘too soon’ is still stands long over the footage.

Told through a collage of found footage, archival work and interviews with Winehouse and her family, collaborators and close friends, Kapadia’s film masquerades as an objective outsider while bristling with pain and defensiveness: we don’t feel or even understand Winehouse’s struggle with mental illness, love, or drugs, but rather – in the wake of tragedy – grieve for something precious killed and rail against the forces that took it. Bitter with unspoken accusations, Amy populates Winehouse’s world with predators, opportunists and ineffectuals, then leaves none with hands clean of her blood.

This has the unfortunate effect of victimising Winehouse. For a film which begins showing her heart, her talent, her biting wit, and her emotional strength and maturity, the Winehouse at its close – an infantile character helpless against the evils of addiction and the fiscal-gluttons and fame-hungry dogs surrounding her – is upsetting and suspicious. Even in the light of the truth, it’s so easy to reduce a famous woman from human to victim in pursuit of narrative; their documenters should take extra care to avoid this, and Amy lets that respect dissolve in its self-righteous anger. We start so close to Winehouse and end so far away from her, nothing clearer, nothing understood, and looking through a sick voyeuristic lens at her body bag being transported from the scene of her death and at her grieving nearest at her funeral, as though they deserved it, the woman renowned for her uncensored attitude now reduced to a vehicle for Kapadia’s justice.

Amy is an illuminating exploration of Winehouse’s story, but held on other’s tongues it transforms into a story about their experiences, not hers. It’s fairly produced, often funny, and in equal strides intimate and removed. The blame falls in fair places, but should a film about Winehouse be all about blame when even Kapadia can’t escape becoming one of the ambulance chasers he accuses by the film’s final curtain? See it for the brutally honest, hard-working and charming soul that was Amy Winehouse, but don’t let her slip away from you.

“Amy” by Richard Moore. First published by Pelican Magazine volume 86 edition 5 page 32, and on their website 29.07.15.

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