It took a while to get over the impact of Asif Kapadia’s Amy. I went to a lunchtime preview on a sunny day in Soho, and when I came out two hours later the place didn’t look quite the same. So affecting was the director’s portrait of a doomed life that it was a struggle to raise much of a smile for the rest of the day. Kapadia’s Senna had much the same effect on its audience, even on those who had no prior interest in the world it described. He and his co-workers — notably his editor, Chris King — have recalibrated our expectations of the biographical documentary.
In the end, though, what interests me about Amy — which opens in the UK this week — is not so much how it describes the life as what it tells us about the work. While it was always obvious, even to slightly detached listeners like me, that the songs on Back to Black were nakedly autobiographical, the film ties them into the reality of her short life in a way that makes them even more powerful.
The essentially asymmetrical nature of her relationship with her father makes the line “My daddy says I’m fine” bear an even more tragic resonance. Of course, no film-maker, even one as skilful and sensitive as Kapadia, can really get to the essence of something so intimate and complex and known to only two people, but Mitch Winehouse’s objections to the film have been less than entirely convincing.
A layer of understanding is added to other important songs by the clips of Amy together with her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil. Disastrous he may have been, but the film makes it clear how deeply she loved him for exactly that, and how perhaps the disaster was therefore unavoidable. Her reading of the affair, as conveyed by her lyrics, now seems even more extraordinarily vivid and poetic.
No British songwriter of her generation has matched her use of vernacular. Lines such as “When I catch myself I do a one-eighty”, “I’ll be some next man’s other woman soon”, “I should be my own best friend / Not fuck myself in the head with stupid men” and “I’m in the tub, you on the seat / Lick your lips as I soap my feet” are intensified by her habit of slurring and sliding the words, which makes them sound like half of a conversation between two people whose intimacy doesn’t require precise enunciation.
“Tears Dry on Their Own” was how I came to Amy Winehouse. I’d resisted her until then. When I heard it, the effect was like stepping into a different world, moving at a different speed, with different colours. That wonderful surge when the staccato stop-time verses, so beautifully channeling late-’60s Motown, give way to the backbeat-riding chorus (“He walks away, the sun goes down…”) is one of her triumphs. The song has that happy/sad thing going beyond words, even though the words of the song were so blazingly eloquent.
Maybe the best thing about Amy is that although it resolutely avoids hagiography or myth-making, the person who comes out of it best is the film’s subject. By using his feel-good, feel-bad movie to deepen our respect for her talent and achievements as a musician as well as our compassion for her destiny, Kapadia seems to have given us something as close to a balanced view as we’re ever likely to get.