What do you think of when you hear ‘Amy Winehouse’? I can’t help but recall a gig she played at Oxygen in 2008. To this day I don’t recall seeing a congregation of such mass at any gig I was there to experience. I watched from afar as she hit every note swaying from side to side, chucking every half-empty glass of miscellany into the crowd before being promptly armed with another. She was shit-faced, plain and simple. But that was all part of the show. That collision between her immense talent and chronic inebriation is where this film tries to base its story.
Directed by Asif Kapadia, the documentary explores the largely untold troubles of her teenage years, the standard period of rebellion and freedom that comes from a parents divorce, and her rise to stardom and ultimate demise in 2011. It’s a story laden with regret from old friends and associates of Amy’s in the nascent stages of her career that they didn’t spot the dangers when they first presented themselves. They particularly lament not getting her to rehab right before Back In Black was released when ‘the whole world wanted a piece of her’.
The intimate footage from home-video and studio recordings present a side to Winehouse shielded from the public while her drug-addled persona was front and center every week. For that this documentary deserves huge credit. However, it is at times overly dense with characters that it asks us to make our own minds up about. Some boyfriends seems to be alluded to simply because there’s footage available of them, when the fractured relationship she had with her father, the single biggest reason for her insecurity, could have done with more traction. One example of this is a scene on an isolated island where Amy is trying to escape the media glare.
A tender moment of a father offering her daughter advice is sullied by the fact that the footage was obtained through a TV camera crew that he brought with him – for a show called ‘Being Amys Dad’. Her talent brought success but her notoriety was achieved through addiction. Amy’s lyrics are plagued with the suffocation she constantly felt from the rigours of broken relationships and the blinding media spotlight. Her talent fuelled her addictive nature, it seems as though nobody was close enough (or sober enough) to tell her that it wasn’t the other way around. One line that lingers in the memory is of her strumming on her guitar as a teenager while a camcorder is being pointed in her face. ‘Leave me alone, let me play my music.’ she laughs. ‘That’s all I’m good for’.
The musical interludes are perhaps the highlight, Amy’s haunting and mesmeric vocals are constantly on hand to offer an at times depressing story some much needed soul. Some of the footage of her earlier interviews are hilarious, particularly one where she stares blankly at a journalist while they compare her talents to Dido. It’s from there that things begin to unravel, however. Her life, much like the movie itself, becomes more and more erratic as it progresses. A protege of Mos Def, he recalls Amy calling into his hotel room and taking out an aluminum foil package when the media were reporting she was clean. “This was someone that was trying to disappear”.
As a whole the documentary is broad enough to appeal to more than her core fans. It’s not quite as artfully done as Montage of Heck, the story of Winehouse’s cohort of the ’27 Club’ Kurt Cobain, but more engaging on a purely sympathetic level. Context is crucial when it comes to lives that are lived through the prism of tabloid headlines, and Kapadia’s ‘Amy’ does a commendable job in providing it.