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.
Wow!..Excellent review. Thank you.
Nice piece, Richard, thanks. I have to say, I’m absolutely torn about whether to see the movie. I was a fan of Amy’s from early on (I urge you to check out ‘Frank’ if only for the ballads and her take on ‘Mister Magic’) and was appalled at the way she became tabloid-fodder, her music sidelined. I wonder if seeing this film will make ‘us’ complicit (not to mention extremely depressed) all over again but will certainly consider it after reading this piece.
As a slightly detached listener of Amy’s myself, I appreciated your point of view. It sounds like an excellent film – hope to see it soon.
I am a completely detached listener – and for once, Richard, remain unmoved by the persuasiveness of your writing re Amy’s music. I will, however, see the film on the strength of SENNA. Good to see the editor Chris King getting his due.
Hi Richard. I caught this film last night and, like many people here it seems I always admired her without her music being quite to my taste. I walked out of it too stunned even to go into a pub to recover. The film however is really good for many reasons. Not least because the frenzy of the press and paparazzi around her when she is so broken is brilliantly handled, and the jokes made about her on celebrity tv shows (Graham Norton etc) come across as the most appalling misjudgement of taste. Also it reminds me what a gift mobile phone and video footage is to the documentary archive. Most of the film is constituted by images taken by friends or associates which also gives the film much of its power. And you are absolutely right. To hear/see her brilliant lyrics in context has made me admire her even more as a songwriter..
commas go after quotes- ?
In English English, yes. In New Yorker-style American English, no.
so many rules, argh! like the article too- loved Amy since ‘frank’ and loved her boldness lyrically, and effortless voice.
Just seen the film which I found very moving. I found the scene with Tony Bennett towards the end particularly moving. Perhaps one of the conclusions is that Amy was a very good jazz singer and that early footage of performances confirm this
You’re right, Richard, it is a very intense film. Hats off to Kapadia, his editor Chris King and his archive producer producer Paul Bell, for the enormous wealth of media and visual material they assemble and then skilfully weave together. The self-centredness of Mitch, and the blankness of Blake Fielder-Civil’s account of how he turned Amy on to crack cocaine are unnerving. Though perhaps the most unnerving comment in the film is Amy’s exclamation (after winning an award) “It’s so boring without drugs.” In the second half, the film becomes increasingly ugly, driving home Amy’s slurred speech, her smeared mascara, her unsteady gait. I can’t help feeling Kapadia is aesthetically slightly in love with these distorted paparazzi, mobile phone images and the destructive tale they tell. But it’s a memorable documentary.