Amy Review: Just Like Us, The Documentary Pries Too Far
The Debrief: You'll fall in love with Amy in this beautiful film, then you'll get to see what our obsession did to her...
A month before her death, we could get away from Amy Winehouse. After laughing at that video of her being booed off stage in Croatia, we could get away from our desktops, wipe the tabloids' ink stains from our hands and get on with our day. Just like the hangers-on could stagger back from hers house when the sun came up and things began to look too seedy, we could take a break.
But Amy couldn’t escape herself. Despite five Grammy wins, a cleaned up drug habit, a new and employed boyfriend on her arm, new demos in the studio and so much to live for, she died of an alcohol overdose aged 27 on July 23, 2011.
Now she's gone, we want what’s left of Amy. The Glastonbury screening of Asif Kapadia’s documentary, Amy, overflowed, people far from the tent craning their heads for a look-in. Yet, running at two hours, the documentary feels like too much yet still not enough of the solemnly talented singer’s life.
The documentary’s credibility lies in its access, to both the voices of those close to Amy – friends from school days, her parents Mitch and Janice, her ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, producers Saalam Remi and Mark Ronson and more – and the images, so many previously unseen and homemade. Her lyrics and songs, that croaking, gutsy voice, also overlay the footage reminding you of her genius throughout.
We join Amy in 2002, via shaky digicam footage taken by Nick Shymansky, her dog-loyal manager giggling as his 16-year-old protégé, full of raw potential, jokes with (or is it at?) him. Her quick wit – she can flip grown men's stomachs with an eyebrow raise – hits a pinnacle in her eye-rolling dismissal of a journalist scrabbling about to find the right box for this gobby Norf London Jew.
Asif instead wants to open Amy up, to ‘try and figure out who Amy was and work out what the truth was and show it’. Even if you’ve not already spent nights in YouTube spirals, clicking and clicking for more Amy to sate your need, you’ll see those truths. And you’ll fall in love with her gumption and seeming self-assuredness. She’s also just really funny, adopting a Spanish accent to give a friend a tour of their Majorca holiday apartment. But really, you had to be there.
This early footage, what Asif calls ‘deep personal mementos’ begins to trail off when Amy’s image – slimmer, tattooed, beehived after the initial critical acclaim of Frank – grows in tabloid currency. And with so many cameras on her she seems to lose much (sober) desire to appear on camera.
Nick has been thoroughly involved in the documentary, telling The Debrief: ‘It was a relief to see the final cut of the film, I could all of a sudden appreciate what it had done for me in terms of my headspace. It was cathartic.’
But how he could bear seeing repeated tabloid footage of Amy as paparazzi recorded and propelled her descent from singer to party girl to troubled star, barely there in tank tops rippled by jutting bones, crumpled up denim shorts, and loose-fitting ballet pumps, is as bewildering as the distant look in her green eyes. Asif in fact 'stripped away' much of the worst paparazzi videos, he says, preferring to focus on her face: 'All you can see is her face and her eyes, but boy, you can see that she's in hell'.
As Amy’s ode to Rehab sky-rockets up the chart, so do her problems, and we remember how we convinced ourselves that we were gawping at an unwell woman because we felt an affinity with her. Maybe young women could relate to Amy because she was so different, the girl who left the Spice Girls’ label and scoffed at Justin Timberlake's song titles. But maybe it was through the similarities: her father’s affair, parents’ divorce, bulimia, depression, drinking to oblivion, drugs, depression, the sorts of problems young women can expect that meant we ‘got’ Amy so long after Back to Black’s release. Asif explains: 'You fall in love with her, she’s great, she’s funny, she’s intelligent, she’s a really strong female character – she’s amazing. She could play the guitar, she could sing, she could’ve been an actress, she could’ve been anything he wanted to be. She had so much potential. But she had all the insecurities, fears and worries that we all have, because she was ordinary. She wasn't built for fame.'
Amy’s world-wide success was a voice deep – in all ways - beyond her years. Its gravitas doesn’t make it any less devastating, though, to hear the high-pitched tears of a friend explaining a stomach-churning encounter with Amy at the Grammy’s (the supposed euphoric counterpoint her previous overdose), a particularly chilling point in the documentary.
The men in Amy’s life are, for all their efforts and different methods, unable to keep her from pain; Mitch visits her in retreat in St Lucia, a camera crew in tow. He later insists she goes to shows she's not prepared for. Blake, an impish addict with an empty swagger, is filmed on their wedding night, chugging beer at a separate table to his wife and guffawing about who’ll pay for it all. The smartest thing he ever did was convince her that he was good for her, and in return, she loved him viciously, trying to match him in everything from drug intake to self-harm. And there’s Nick, who cuts her off until she gets clean (his advice to friends of addicts: ‘don’t get involved in anything other than trying to support them and help them.’)
While no-one will be questioning any perceived wrong turns more than those emotionally closest to Amy, there’s hope this film might implore those who looked at Amy the hardest to look right back at themselves.
We’re given aerial shots of milestone locations of Amy’s life – her parents’ Finchley home, a New York promo tour, her house in Camden, but the most telling context is the other celebrities who collided with Amy’s at some point.
There’s the grim: Pete Doherty mumbling about Amy's promise, there's Frankie Boyle and Graham Norton cracking jokes at her expense (Nick wonders ‘since when was it OK to make jokes about a bulimic on TV?’). There’s Terry Richardson silently condoning Amy’s on-set drug use in return for the high-exposed shots he can get of what’s left of her body. Asif says he included this because he had to: 'The audience were lapping it up, comedians were making fun of her and that was all part of what she became. I had to use it to put us in the middle of it, to understand how nasty and vile it all was. The power of that is you see it and feel it and hear it and it's violent. It's an attack on her and I had to use those tools.'
Gentler, momentary clips of Taylor Swift and Beyoncé at the Grammys remind you of what could have been. These young women, with ascendant self-discipline, not like Lindsay Lohan or Princess Diana or Judy Garland or Amanda Bynes or Ke$ha or whoever (because in the saddest way, part of Amy's story is part of theirs too) went on to surpass Amy. And you wonder why she couldn’t have gone with them too.
But Amy wasn’t a follower. With blood and make-up smeared across her face, her complexion a mosaic of cuts, bruises, clumped-up make-up and scabs, her image – uncontrollable like her performances and habits of Marlboro Reds, vodka, vomiting, heroin and crack cocaine – became easy money. Asif explains to us the paparazzi footage is of what had become Amy's 'weird normality to walk around in underwear in the street and there's hardly anything left of her,' but the hope is it's a reminder that it's become our weird normality to look at things like that. An increasingly shrunken body chased as she tried to go to rehab, a woman trailed when she left a bar, an icon hounded as she tripped, surrounded as she shook, men in black caging her in as she went outside delirious, cold in just her underwear and a disheveled wig. All this because when we did want Amy, we wanted so much of her.
The second most shocking scene of this beautiful, profound film – the first is the feather-light gurney being removed from her home – is when Amy ties a tourniquet on a photoshoot. It’s not around her wrist or her wrist-thick thigh. It’s around her waist. She'd give up all the fame just to walk down the streets she used to call home. But we've closed in on her and there’s no way out now. So tighter and tighter the belt goes, and deeper and deeper she sucks in. She sucks in until she disappears.
Like this? You might also be interested in:
At work? With your gran?
You might want to think about the fact you're about to read something that wouldn't exactly get a PG rating