Legend has it that when American blues artist Nehemah James (more commonly known as “Skip”) suspected a listener of studying the way he was performing a song, he would change up the way he played it on purpose. He needn’t have bothered. Even if some rival musician could figure out Skip’s intricate finger picking, there was no way anyone could ever match his voice. To this day, James has not received appropriate attention. Perhaps that’s because we don’t know what to do with truly unique voices.
Asif Kapadia’s new documentary about the all-too-short life of Amy Winehouse chronicles another unique voice. Another voice that no one seemed to know what to do with. In Amy, capitalising on a wealth of private and public footage, Kapadia is able to present a detailed portrait of the decade in which Winehouse rose to the top of the musical world and then tragically crashed and burned. Kapadia gets interviews with virtually all of the important players in Amy’s life including family, friends and musical colleagues. And because Amy’s rise and fall occurred very publicly in the era of ubiquitous cameras and reality television, even those who did not necessarily cooperate with the filmmakers still appear and speak on screen.
There is no narration or overriding context for the story. It is told through a variety of talking heads and archival footage. And of course, it is told through the music.
The movie has been generally praised for its straightforward candour, and I agree with that assessment. Amy Winehouse had exalted highs and humiliating lows in her short time in the spotlight. Kapadia illustrates both. Her bliss upon hearing idol Tony Bennett read her name when she won the record of the year Grammy for Rehab is balanced by the devastating footage of her meltdown on stage in Serbia when she appeared disoriented and was unable to perform. The movie is full of emotional swings like that.
The characters in the film essentially break down into two camps. The first is comprised of Amy’s friends, which include her original manager Nick Shymansky, and childhood pals Lauren Gilbert and Juliette Ashby. The movie begins with home video shot by Gilbert of a teenage Winehouse singing Happy Birthday. The second group would appear to be those who exploited the singer once she became famous. This group include drug addicted husband Blake Fielder, promoter-manager Raye Cosbert, and most poignantly, father Mitch Winehouse.
But in the end, all the other voices are merely supporting players. What the movie has going for it more than anything else is the voice of Amy Winehouse, in both spoken word and song.
There is a scene early on, when she was just beginning to flirt with stardom, when Winehouse discusses her fear of celebrity. She tells an interviewer that should the press ever take to following her around, they would quickly learn that all she’s good for is making songs. Her naïve assumption is that upon discovering this, that same press would then leave her in peace to create her music. Little did she know how insatiable the press would become.
There is the continual implication throughout the movie that her genuine friends did not know how to help her and that the men she most trusted placed their own self-interests above her well-being. It is hard to deny that was the case. However, Kapadia does allow both Cosbert and Mitch Winehouse a moment or two to state their cases. Cosbert, who was originally Amy’s promoter before being asked to take over manager duties from Shymansky, was most likely overmatched in his new position. Late in the movie, when Amy is clearly in trouble, he speaks about how successful he had been at promoting her tours. That is true. As a promoter, he was doing an effective job. But he appears to have been totally oblivious to the things a manager should have known. As for Mitch, who by and large comes off as the ultimate villain in the story, he does get to say something that needed to be said: that no matter how much anyone wanted to help her, nothing would work unless Amy took responsibility for helping herself.
That moment will not make you appreciate Mitch Winehouse, but it begins to get at the complexity of Amy’s story. It is obvious she was not protected by those who should have protected her. But it is also obvious that she was self-destructive. Her decisions often seemed calculated to do as much harm to herself as possible. Amy pretty much says this at several points. If she cannot make music on her own terms, she feels as if she has no purpose. Knowing how her story ends, these moments can be even more painful than her more public embarrassments.
Kapadia does a very good job of putting all this material into context, but there is one aspect of the movie that is very troubling. Ruby Lott-Lavigna, in a blistering review in the Guardian, accuses Kapadia of multiple sins, most of which I find totally baseless. But she does hit on one very salient point, something which troubled me as I watched, but which I had a hard time understanding before reading her review. Kapadia relies on a good deal of footage which we can assume was shot by paparazzi, much of which shows Amy in various embarrassing situations. The movie makes clear that this type of intrusion into Amy’s private life exacerbated her existing problems. Does a documentarian in Kapadia’s position have any responsibility when making use of such footage? This is a tricky question that may not have a one-size-fits-all answer. But the movie never dips its toe into this question.
In the end, neither invasive paparazzi nor sympathetic talking heads get the final say. Because like Skip James before her, Amy Winehouse had a rare voice, and when she sings, she dwarfs anything else. Kapadia made the decision to subtitle Winehouse’s lyrics while she sings. This is in part due to the fact that Amy’s phrasing was so different that many listeners could not understand the words. And it is absolutely crucial that we understand. When Amy sings in her very first single Stronger Than Me “You should be stronger than me. You’ve been here seven years longer than me,” it is important to remember that Amy Winehouse put her personal life into all of her music. She never adopted a pose for public consumption. It appears after watching Amy, that her early plea was genuine. She was forever looking for someone to watch over her. Someone strong enough to help her change her destructive behaviour for the better. Sadly, she never found that.
Amy Winehouse died on July 23, 2011 at the age of 27. The cause of death was alcohol poisoning, and it is widely assumed that her long-term struggle with bulimia was a contributing factor. Perhaps that sad fact put me in mind of Todd Haynes’ astounding Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. The Haynes movie is very different from Kapadia’s, just as the lives of Karen Carpenter and Amy Winehouse were very different in some ways. But in other ways, they were eerily similar. Karen’s voice was among the purest you will ever hear. Amy’s was among the most interesting. You would think these would be good qualities for a performer. But sometimes, as Amy makes abundantly clear, being out there on an artistic limb, especially for a female performer in the public eye, can be lonely, terrifying and dangerous.