DIR: Asif Kapadia • PRO: James Gay-Rees • ED: Chris King • MUS: Antonio Pinto • Cast: Amy Winehouse
The first seismic shift in my understanding of music occurred when I realised that most musicians don’t sit around writing lyrics as a kicking off point for a song. Until that early point in my life, I naively believed that words came first. They took precedent. Priority. The realisation that lyrics are often an utter afterthought to fit a tune floored me and not in a good way.
Even lyrical geniuses like Paul Simon are often warping language to sit inside a song construct. Yet lyrics are still important to me. They were important to Amy Winehouse. And thankfully they are important to director Asif Kapadia (Senna) too.
Within this film, Amy states that she couldn’t sing a lyric that wasn’t personal to her. That she hadn’t lived. And Kapadia wisely puts her words central to the entire documentary. They are literally painted on screen. To a huge extent, it’s as personal and deep as one could get with Amy Winehouse. Since she was an elusive, enigmatic, contradictory and mischievous interviewee judging by the multiplicity of material presented here in a colourful insightful mosaic where we still struggle to see the overall picture with any certainty.
Like Senna, Kapadia totally eschews talking heads in this documentary. Instead it was cobbled together with a multitude of footage ranging from official media interviews to paparazzi snaps to personal videos from friends and family. Cobbled is not to suggest an absence of skill rather it a skill in itself. Kapadia admits that it took a lot of negotiation with Amy’s loved ones to gain access to this footage. A process seemingly worthy of a film in its’ own right.
The narrative structure Kapadia selects to follow is pretty much linear tracing Amy’s rise from a raw singer with an artistically interesting first album through to the genuinely overwhelming response to ‘Back To Black’ that in retrospective seemed akin to a tsunami engulfing a fragile soul who simply saw herself as a soul singer. An artist happier at niche jazz festivals or smoky clubs rather than playing stadiums. Amy’s unease at where her career careered off to is tangible from the second her personal rollercoaster crested the summit of fame.
Since its ecstatic reception at Cannes, a huge amount of focus on this film has zeroed in on Amy’s turbulent relationship with her former husband Blake Fielder-Civil. What is certainly true is that this film is infused with both sadness and anger that Amy spiralled downwards and that no one could save her. Least of all herself it seemed. The deep poignancy of the film is often so simply earned. Tender scenes with her hero Tony Bennett sit side by side with a shocking low-key admission to a friend that rams home the insidious lure of addiction.
And under all of this remains a central and still unanswered mystery. Where exactly did this voice and talent come from? For all her father’s apparent ambition and showbiz leanings, nothing in her lineage really explains it fully. She seemed like a voice from a different age and of a different age. Her existence proved the truth in the cliché of ‘an old soul in a young body’ but there remains the sense that even under the scrutiny of Kapadia’s piercing gaze, the real ‘Amy’ remains unexplained and untouched.
15A (See IFCO for details)