There are times when a film will come along that is constructed and executed in such a way that it lingers in the audience’s minds. It leaves an ‘emotional hangover’ that viewers have to deal with well after the final curtain. The latest documentary film release, Amy, is set to be one of those films.
The film, directed by acclaimed Senna director Asif Kapadia, chronicles the desperately short life of British singer, songwriter extraordinaire and musician Amy Winehouse. It follows her rise to fame and infamy in a whirlwind of addiction and mental ill health. But what is it about this film that makes it so intoxicating? What is it that results in Amy having such an impact on the viewer?
Firstly, as with Senna, the audience are aware of the film’s tragic outcome, along with some of the plot points along the way. This knowledge brings with it a sadness and melancholia that hangs over the film like a dark cloud. Linked to this is the fact that memories of Amy’s untimely death are still recent (2011) so the emotion around the event is still raw. Before the film has even begun there is an emotional and grief induced heaviness surrounding Kapadia’s Amy.
In terms of the construction of the film, Kapadia offers a heavily researched narrative utilizing archive footage, personal telephone calls and messages alongside over a hundred audio interviews. Kapadia gradually pieced together the jigsaw of Amy’s life via those that were closest to her. The outcome of this is a voyeuristic portrayal from the perspective of those that most effected Amy’s life. The audience views Amy through the eyes of people that loved her. We are her friends; we are her family, her lover and her professional colleagues. We are also the media that hounded her and the people that laughed at the jokes about this tortured talent. By providing us with this viewpoint, Kapadia creates an intimacy that provokes an emotional reaction. We laugh with Amy and we feel her pain and her anguish. We feel her hope when things start to improve and we feel the guilt as we chase her as part of the paparazzi.
This archive footage technique also has the effect of portraying Amy as talking directly to the audience. In these scenes, Amy Winehouse is not only talking to people that interviewed her, she is talking to people that love her and that she loves in return. We are witnessing her just be “Amy”. In the first scene we watch a teenage Amy serenade a friend for her birthday via a home video. We see her charm and charisma as those closest to her did, offering us an inwardness that resonates throughout the film.
In that first scene we see a young, smiling girl surrounded by friends. This is juxtaposed to the image many of the audience carry of her in their heads; that of the train-wreck that was portrayed by the media. From the outset we are given this glimpse of what came before all the headlines. We are drawn into the story through an intriguing insight into her life pre-fame.
Kapadia uses more than the archive footage to guide us along Amy’s path. He uses the hours of recorded audio interviews he conducted with those closest to her. Much as he did in Senna, Kapadia uses these interviews as narration. We hear their speech but on the screen we watch Amy. In an article for the New York Times Kapadia stated: ‘what effects audiences is the emotional tone that you are hearing’. This definitely rings true as you hear the pure pain, grief and anger evident within the interviewees reminiscing about their lost friend. It washes over the audience and heightens the emotional investment viewers make in the film.
By making use of this intimate footage Kapadia brings an air of truth to this document of Amy’s life. In an interview with screendaily.com Kapadia stated ‘I made the film as honestly as I could considering the research and footage I have seen’. What you begin to realise as a viewer is that this honesty that is also a reflection of Amy herself, a plain speaking woman without airs and graces.
One aspect of Kapadia’s direction that adds much to the atmosphere and emotive power of the film is the way in which he lets Amy tell her story. Amy wrote lyrics as a means of making sense of the world around her. Songwriting was a therapy for her to manage her own emotions and troubles, and express this eloquently. Kapadia shows a great respect for this, using these lyrics to shape the narrative and guide us through different aspects of Amy’s life. The lyrics mirror real life break ups, relationships and a host other experiences and they are used to drive the story forward. As we learn of Amy’s refusal to go to a hospital to face her addiction demons we see the lyrics of Rehab overlay images and video footage whilst her soulful voice provides the soundtrack. Kapadia puts the pieces together, but Amy tells her story.
This personal insight into her beautiful and creative mind, combined with the images and footage on screen makes for a very affecting experience. It is Amy’s own feelings and emotions that are the signposts along the path of her life leading us along her journey. This helps the audience build a relationship as they connect with the old soul that is housed within her slender and fragile frame.
Amy Winehouse is portrayed in a salutary manner in this film. Kapadia recognises and focuses on her talent and potential rather than judging her for her downward spiral.. There is no agenda and the use of first-hand knowledge from people such as her manager Nick Shymansky and her closest friends Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert offers a non-biased approach. Although there has been some criticism of the honesty of some people involved in the film, which is not to be discussed in this article, this candid portrait of Amy works to enthral the audience.
On a practical level the film displays impressive editing, restoring grainy mobile phone footage to a resolution that the audience are able to watch on the big screen. A huge amount of footage is edited together with sympathy for the plot, aligning with the soundtrack to produce an endearing synchronicity.
When all of these aspects are brought together the result is a cinematic experience that intoxicates the audience. They drink in all of the associated emotion, all of the pain, agony, happiness, hope and grief. They share real tears and real laughter and all of this continues to taunt those viewers after the film has reached its inevitable conclusion and Amy has gone.