AT one point in this tremendous documentary the singer Amy Winehouse tells an interviewer, “All I’m good for is making tunes. So leave me alone.” Just before her first album’s release, she says that if she ever became famous, “I would go mad.” Poor thing. The warnings were there, but no-one listened.
Asif Kapadia’s previous, award-winning documentary, Senna, was about the legendary racing driver Ayrton Senna, leading up to his fatal crash at the San Marino Grand Prix; one might say that the director has now turned his attention to a different kind of car wreck that was waiting to happen, and did so when the singer died of alcohol poisoning in 2011, aged just 27. He’s done so with his customary skill and sensitivity, a mastery of material and a storyteller’s instinct for where to follow his characters. The result is brilliantly-constructed and heart-breaking.
Winehouse need not have joined the roster of musical icons who die young. Yet she was vulnerable, for sure, troubled from childhood by the separation of her parents and suffering from bulimia; and her personal demons became compounded by the most heinous aspects of celebrity culture and by the failures of those she most loved.
The film charts her life from her entry into the music business as a teenager and speedy success, through her deeply destructive marriage to Blake Fielder and descent with him into drug addition, to her death aged 27, in 2011. Kapadia uses a similar approach to that of Senna, stitching together archive material – in this case home videos, recording and concert footage, TV clips, stills – with audio interviews (he conducted over 100, with family, friends and colleagues) that play over the images.
Kapadia also adds a new element to his palette, which is Winehouse’s song-writing; as we watch her sing, the lyrics appear on screen. Since her songs were overtly personal, this is an immaculate method of adding her voice to the film’s narrative. Rehab, in which she laments the way in which she was talked out of treatment at an early stage of her addictions, is a case in point.
There has been some controversy over how certain people are depicted, though I’d challenge any of the participants to quibble when their own words and actions are pretty damning. I’ll let viewers make up their own minds about individuals, but would further identify an accumulating feeling through the film that society as a whole also let Winehouse down – with the very same media that lauded and loved the phenomenal new talent then loathing and deriding her as a drug addict, with no attempt to understand.
It’s a film that exercises a range of emotions, making you feel angry, sad, outraged and – this is important – frequently uplifted. From a home video of her as a kid singing happy birthday to a friend, it’s obvious that Winehouse was aware of her voice very early on; a little later, we see the aficionado’s passion for jazz that inspired her own vocal style; though her latter stage debacles hang over her image, the clips of her performing happily and with confidence are reminders of what Jools Hollland described as “one of the best voices of all time.”
The most poignant moment comes when she records a song with one of her idols, Tony Bennett. It’s notable that many of the people who best understood her, and wanted nothing of her, were themselves creative. The old crooner’s shepherding of his nervous partner during their duet is a joy to watch. Arguably Kapadia’s greatest achievement is to be return to us the Amy Winehouse that Bennett saw – not the tragic victim, but the funny, sassy young woman with the God-given voice.
This review first appeared in The Sunday Herald