The fact that you know how the story will end gives Amy a sense of foreboding which only amplifies as the documentary develops. Entirely told through the use of existing footage – much of it previously unseen – and interviews with the most important people surrounding Amy Winehouse during her 27 years, director Asif Kapadia weaves together a story about love, addiction, intrusion and ultimately the demise of one of Britain’s greatest artists of recent years.
Not long into the film, there is a quote from Winehouse taken from a radio interview following the release of her first album Frank. “I don’t think I’m gonna be at all famous,” she says, “I don’t think I could handle it. I would go mad.” She would turn out to be infinitely wrong about the first part of the quote, and chillingly clairvoyant about the second. At this point she is being filmed mostly by her friend and manager, Nick Shymanksy, and comes across as a funny and irreverent girl not taking herself or the industry too seriously. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the film, it is the stage of her life we have seen least and reveals much about her years growing up. Kapadia’s interviews extract detail of this time from figures not usually heard from in the press with great effect; her mother Janis and two best friends from childhood are especially insightful.
Winehouse’s move to Camden in 2005 coincides with the introduction of one of the main antagonists in the film: her future (later ex-) husband Blake Fielder-Civil. Although the film is careful not to place all of the blame on one character, it is clear that Fielder-Civil, and Amy’s falling in love with him, contributed to her demise. As she is introduced to cocaine and heroin, she seems increasingly to surround herself with the wrong people and make the wrong decisions and we learn of her battles with depression and bulimia.
Despite the story becoming darker and sadder as the film continues, Kapadia gives us the occasional moment of light, though each of these is tinged with sadness. There is a period where Winehouse has been in St Lucia for six months, away from the media glare, clean from drugs (though not alcohol) and seeming to make a recovery. Then her father Mitch – another antagonist – shows up with a camera crew and the downward spiral recommences. But the point where you know it was never going to end well, the saddest point of the film for me, is during the 2008 Grammys. Winehouse, in another clean period, wins and looks shocked and delighted – but then we hear the interview from Juliette Ashby, her childhood friend who was there on the night. Ashby explains how she was pulled aside by Amy and told that none of it was any fun without drugs.
Yet, despite Winehouse’s husband and her father not coming out of the film at all well, it is clear that Kapadia places the bulk of the blame on the media intrusion into this fragile woman’s life. There is a powerful montage which intersperses footage of armies of paparazzi pointing their cameras in Amy’s plainly distressed face – the screen turns almost completely white from the number of camera flashes – with that of famous comedians making jokes about her mental state. It begs the question of whether it is okay to ridicule someone in the public eye who evidently has mental health issues and is visibly being affected by the attention. The film allows you to make up your own mind.
Beautifully and tenderly put together, Amy allows the existing footage to tell the story in a way that a straight biopic could not do. Perhaps the film’s greatest triumph is its soundtrack of Winehouse’s music; her songs are allowed to play uninterrupted at times and are brought so much more meaning and potency once we have seen their origins and inspirations. Kapadia took the bold decision to show the lyrics on the screen, and as that velvety voice sings them it highlights just what a great singer and songwriter we lost. But above all it shows us that we never needed to intrude into her private life to see what Amy Winehouse was really like. It was all there in her songs.