Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
If I asked the majority of the public who Amy Winehouse was, they’d say she was that British artist who had that song about rehab and died of a drug overdose. Yet that only scratches the surface of the deeply troubled artist. Asif Kapadia’s Amy is the year’s best film because it exposes the truth behind her life and the way that the public and media destroyed her self. She wasn’t ready for the spotlight, and it ruined her. The film moves like a traditional narrative but retains the intimacy of a personal documentary, making it a brilliantly structured film that aims for atypical storytelling for an atypical singer. There are no talking heads heaping praise onto the gone-too-soon crooner, nor are there endless scenes celebrating her talents and realizing that we lost someone special. Rather, the film shows the public the horrors of Amy’s life: her battle with bulimia, her drug use starting in her early teenage years, and her substance abuse that grew out of control when she became a major star. Amy is a Shakespearan tragedy told with poignancy and tinged with regret.
The story chronicles Amy’s life up until her death, starting with archival footage from her pre-teen and teenage years. She’s seen as a vocally gifted, shy, and reserved girl. The film puts a smart twist on the way that we are told this narrative, though, as talking heads disappear while family and friends fill in any gaps and inform us of what extends beyond the childhood lens. Amy struggled with eating disorders when she was a young girl, scarfing down all of her food at dinner before throwing it all back up later that night. She also got involved with drugs at a particularly young age; in this case, marijuana indeed was a bridge drug that led her to cocaine and, at her death bed, heroin. Director Kapadia’s film explores drug use as a means of escaping reality, even including alcohol in that mix since Amy was notorious for turning up to events drunk. Amy used and abused for a variety of reasons: she was psychologically troubled from her upbringing, she didn’t seem to connect with most of the outside world and their tastes in music, and she fell apart in the aggressive public spotlight once she hit it big with her album Back to Black.
It’s rare for a film to depict the paparazzi as manipulative and downright volatile when it comes to the treatment of celebrities, yet here it strikes a far greater cord with the audience. Kapadia, through his brilliant lens of humanism, has created a human being out of the usually larger-than-life Amy Winehouse; we never really see her as this huge starlet like so much of the world did. She was a low-key lounge singer that never even fathomed performing in front of tens of thousands of people, nor was she psychologically ready for such an endeavor. We see her as a person thrown into a deep pool of sharks without any means of escape. In Amy’s tragic case, her only way of escaping the madness was through a return to drug use. The story occasionally explores her family’s perspective, but the majority of the insight comes from her previous boyfriends and friends from a young age. One tragically notes that, upon Amy’s amazing Grammy night where she won Record of the Year, Amy told her, “This is so boring when I’m sober.” Amy’s life was beyond troubled, and Kapadia’s lens never relents. It crafts a story that shows the way her music extended deeply into her soul and showed us who she really was. And to Amy, I posthumously say this: we understand you.
Grade: ★★★★★ (out of 5)