Amy, the latest documentary charting the rise and fall of British singer Amy Winehouse is confronting, tragic and at times almost impossible to watch.
And so it should be.
The life of Amy Winehouse, as we were frequently told by the paparazzi that hounded her constantly, was one marked as much by struggle and suffering as it was by fame and fortune. She fought several different demons throughout her life including drug addiction, bulimia, and the alcohol addiction that eventually killed her.
As director Asif Kapadia shows, these struggles were increased by the burdens placed on her by the people who should have supported her most, and this documentary pulls no punches in showing how the people who could possibly have saved her are the ones that ultimately allowed her to die. These people – her father and her ex-husband in particular – have protested the release of this documentary hugely, which comes as no surprise considering the way that it depicts their actions and their involvement in her death. It is especially telling that several of them had already released or participated in other “tell-all” exposés that portrayed them in a far more favourable light than this film, even going so far as to show them being as ‘victimised’ by Amy’s actions as she was.
This documentary, however, forgoes telling other people’s stories in favour of gathering together a huge range of video footage of the woman herself, from incredibly personal handycam footage of young Amy at friend’s birthday parties, to early songwriting and auditions and some of her first performances in jazz clubs, to some of the last interviews and recordings made before her death. Through this we are shown an incredibly personal side to Amy: her fears and insecurities about her talent, her weaknesses, her self-doubt and struggles with her body. The film touts itself as showing Amy in her own words, and to a reasonable extent it does. In collecting so much raw footage of her across all of her years as a performer it gives her voice a chance to shine through, and we get to see what she had to say to the people closest to her rather than to the celebrity interviewers and the endless streams of paparazzi. The scenes of her speaking with and about her father in particular show an honest and vulnerable side that was hidden behind the out-of-control party-girl image the media was so fond of promoting.
The film does fall slightly short of true honesty, though, especially in the way that it frames many of these words with comments and criticisms by others. One of the best examples of this is her mother’s voiceover explaining how difficult and stubborn she could be, before cutting to a toddler-age Amy throwing a tantrum on some kind of family trip. While the footage certainly shows Amy being stubborn and difficult, the use of footage of a toddler to ‘prove’ a facet of adult Amy’s personality comes across as slightly misleading at best, and downright tacky at worst. Most of the film, however, does a very moving job of telling what could be argued to be Amy’s ‘side’, although it does show the toxic nature of the people around her in a way that Amy herself may not have been able to see.
And it’s this almost naive trust that comes across most strongly in this film, as the filmmakers seem to be trying to say that her faith in the people closest to her ended up failing her almost as much as they did. Her mother ignoring her bulimia, allowing it to take a horrific toll on her body; her husband introducing her to crack and heroin, ravaging it even further; her father who told her she didn’t need to go to rehab and costing her a vital chance at salvation.
All of this – coupled with a public that delighted in watching her crash and burn – caused her to be trapped in a terrible place and, eventually, led her to her tragic death. This film shows that in almost painful detail, but after all our voyeurism contributed so directly to this tragedy it seems only fair that we watch one last time as we’re confronted with the uncomfortable reality of paparazzi and celebrity culture that this film so heavily criticises.
Amy is now showing at Cinema Nova, with special Meet the Filmmaker screenings this Saturday 18th and Sunday 19th of July. For more information see cinemanova.com.au.