Not long after the release of Frank, her 2003 debut studio album, Amy Winehouse gave an interview to a Dutch radio station wherein she brazenly admitted rage toward a producer who added pre-recorded strings to one of her songs. She wanted to have her entire backing band play live on the tracks, which is part of what gives Frank and Back to Black their distinct sound. The audio from that interview is featured in Amy, Asif Kapadia’s documentary portrait of the late singer, and it serves to both underline Winehouse’s winningly unpolished demeanor and what Kapadia does wrong in depicting the intensely talented songstress as a victim of a veracious public and the admittedly pretty vile corporate interests of modern media.
Kapadia utilizes only archival footage, and limits all modern touches to audio interviews with friends, family, and colleagues, including her parents, former husband Blake Fielder, producer Salaam Remi, and longtime manager Nick Shymansky. Through careful, involving editing, Kapadia’s assemblage presents an intimate view of a brilliant performer, a naturally engaging and immediately recognizable musical presence, who was destroyed by the men in her life. Mitch Winehouse, Amy’s father, is seen as unerringly greedy and self-obsessed, piggy-backing off of his daughter’s rehab stint to secure a reality TV show deal; Fielder comes off even worse, both in his past behavior and in his self-romanticizing interview recorded especially for the film. The documentary, then, is a moving, enraging, and deeply believable case study, showing Winehouse as obsessed with male attention and father figures, often in the personages of corrupt, manipulative men, echoing her feelings of abandonment following Mitchell’s divorce from her mother and general disinterest in her until she got some money in her pocket.
Beyond clips of Winehouse practicing, recording, and performing, Kapadia prominently features footage of the singer that highlight her bracing seductiveness and sense of humor, whether chatting up talk-show hosts and friends or barely tolerating bland journalists. For the most part, the documentary succeeds in conveying a galvanizing sense of what made Winehouse so immediately engaging, how her need for attention powered her stardom as well as her drug habits. When Kapadia confronts Winehouse’s post-“Rehab” depression and substance abuse, however, the filmmakers gets distastefully moralistic, turning Amy into a high-and-mighty indictment of obsessive fandom and the cult of celebrity. He adds no particular stylistic or ideological curl to his familiar judgment of these admittedly alarming issues, and, subsequently, turns Winehouse’s story into just another cautionary tale of a singer and songwriter who burned up under the spotlight. He doesn’t even seem to be aware of the rather blatant fact that without the bevy of photos, clips, filmed performances, and audio interviews that her publicity required, Amy wouldn’t have been made, at least not the way he wanted to make it. And if the filmmaker is aware of this fact, it’s not conveyed in any palpable way.
What he imparts, mainly, is outrage and sadness over how the world at large flippantly reacted to Winehouse’s increasingly disturbing behavior and myriad addictions. It’s hard to argue against, especially in hindsight, but this is where Kapadia quite literally adds the strings to Winehouse’s story. His choice of non-diegetic music highlights the horror and melancholy of Winehouse’s downward spiral, as if it weren’t plainly clear how deeply sad and arguably avoidable all of this was. He goes a step further in placing the largely autobiographical lyrics to Winehouse’s songs on screen, suggesting that her art was a cry for help, or, at the very least, an open admission that she was aware of her problems. Kapadia’s underlying argument here is that art should be taken literally and very seriously, and that the heavy compromises that business and publicity demand from artists is what ultimately dilutes art and occasionally kills artists. The perhaps unintended consequences of all of this is that Amy becomes as much an empathetic, absorbing view of a major artist and seemingly pretty wonderful person as it is a harangue about the inherent evils of capitalism, focusing primarily on the role of money in the life of someone who grew bored of wealth nearly as soon as she obtained it.