I had serious reservations about this film. We all know the tragic end to Amy Winehouse’s story — and how the intense media scrutiny she came under played its part.
Except of course that wasn’t the end. Since her death at the age of 27 made headlines across the world in 2011, there have been plenty of TV movies and documentaries. None have told us anything we didn’t already know and many have been sensationalist and in bad taste. Do we really need another one?
Yes, it turns out, because this documentary is completely different. Directed by Asif Kapadia, who was at the helm of Bafta-winning Senna, it’s made up of footage — almost all of it never seen before — of her life from teen-hood to her last weeks. With so much coverage of her decline, most of us can barely remember an Amy who wasn’t defined by drink and drugs. Kapadia’s film takes us back to before her hit song Rehab became the track that summed up her musical career and lifestyle.
We see a teenage Amy at her first flat, mucking around with friends and spending time with lovers. For someone who wrote such poetic lyrics, she comes across as surprisingly funny as well as sharp. There’s a hilarious scene in which an interviewer compares her to Dido as they are both writing about heartbreak. Amy’s face is so unimpressed, as if to say “I can’t believe you’re comparing my soulful poetry to Dido and her lame song about ships going down.”
But while Amy’s funny, fun side is a huge part of the film, she’s also in no way portrayed as an angel or total victim. The documentary also derails the narrative that she was a hedonist — living fast so she could die young. Instead her drink and drug use seem more about escaping pain.
The film also zooms in on her relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil, the man she married before he went to prison, and later divorced after admitting adultery. Their seemingly toxic, co-dependant relationship was the beginning of Amy’s descent into drugs, and it’s easy to blame Blake for that. But he was also deeply troubled after a difficult childhood, and Amy was clearly madly in love with a man who was flailing just like she was.
Amy’s father Mitch has publicly slated the film, saying it is exploitative and portrays him in a bad light. It’s true that he comes off worst — as someone who loved his daughter but walked out on her, and later sought fame at her expense. But it never feels as if that’s the film’s agenda.
It’s Amy’s best friends Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, plus her former manager Nick Shymansky, who really bring insight and emotion to the film. Their very personal take on Amy’s downfall is fascinating and poignant. There are no talking heads – just voices accompanying the footage and images.
The film also includes unseen recording sessions that are lovely to hear but also show how conscientious Amy was when she still cared about music. In footage from 2011, she’s recording with her idol Tony Bennett and gets very frustrated with herself for not singing it perfectly. “I don’t want to waste your time,” she says to him.
Having got to know the real her, it’s all the more painful to watch the footage from later years: skeletal, stumbling about on stage, being chased by paparazzi and smashing their cameras. It’s impossible not to wonder how her support network let her get to this stage, how they let her go on performing when she clearly needed help. But it also raises bigger questions about our attitude to mental health, fame and money. Everyone wanted a piece of her, and that pressure pushed her over the edge.
But Amy isn’t simply a morality tale about the dangers of excess, media and fame. The singer was far too fascinating and complex to fit into that all too familiar narrative of a talented, suddenly wealthy youngster going off the rails. There was no need to be interested in Formula 1 to enjoy Kapadia’s Senna because it was really about an extraordinary human. The same goes for Amy. However much you liked her music, this is a beautifully done, unbearably sad, mesmerising film that will stay with you long after you’ve left the cinema.