by ken donnelly
Documentaries have the power to rewrite history. They offer us alternative ways of looking at the world and provide the catalyst for a shift in perceptions and attitudes. They are not merely the exploitation of subject matter for the monetary gain nor are they an exercise in manipulating the truth for dramatic purposes. With Amy, the 2015 Oscar winning picture on the life and death of Amy Winehouse, filmmaker Asif Kapadia has given the world the opportunity to atone for the way it treated
the late London jazz idol. It reinvents the narrative of Amy’s short life, depicting her as an inspiring presence, an innovator, and a musical genius as opposed to the reckless socialite who was portrayed
across the media during her career.
Kapadia adopts a similar documenting style as seen in his 2010 cinematic triumph Senna, based on the life and death of Brazilian Formula 1 superstar Ayrton Senna. Both films involve the intricate piecing together of archived footage and photographs together with old and new audio interviews. No new shots were used in either film. The style puts the subject matter first and demotes the interviewees to an accompanying role. In Amy, there is a great immediacy about the images. Heavy use of interviews with Winehouse herself allows her story to be told on her own terms. The lack of reliance on new footage lets us see Winehouse as a living and breathing human being as opposed to a nostalgic figure of the past. Kapadia has wonderfully constructed a space where Winehouse’s music and personality can shine through.
One of the great successes of Amy comes in its devotion to the songs and musical development of the titular singer. Early scenes establish the deep emotional connection Winehouse has with her
music. One scene of an eighteen year old Amy casually performing an early acoustic version of “I Heard Love Is Blind” in an attempt to woo a record company leaves the viewer in no doubt of her unique talent. Lyrics appear on screen accompanying live recordings and live performances are often
flanked by scenes of great significance to the songs involved. Kapadia provides a window into uncovering the realities and contexts behind Amy’s confessional music, specifically bringing to light the disturbing effect of the commercial world on the development of Amy’s music and career.
Despite Kapadia’s championing of Winehouse as a musician and as a warm vibrant human being, the lasting power of Amy is in its inspection of her public struggle and tragic demise. Throughout
the first half of the film, a young Amy is heard consistently disparaging the prospects of her potential fame. “I don’t think I’m going to be at all famous. I don’t think I could handle it. I’d probably go mad, y’know what I mean?” - she remarks in one particular interview. This light-hearted statement coupled with an awareness of what is to follow is just one of many moments of intense sadness.
As the film progresses, the scenes become more and more unsettling, tapping into a darkness built to match the crushing lows of Amy’s mental illness and worsening alcoholism and drug addiction. However, what shocks us the most is undoubtedly the extent to which Amy’s struggles were in public view. The world watched Amy Winehouse dying in front of their own eyes and just sat back and enjoyed the ride. Paparazzi’s cameras flash like a barrage of gunfire while TV personalities make her the butt of every joke. While Kapadia spends a lot of time exploring the culpability for Amy’s demise
of those in direct proximity to her, such as her father Mitch and her boyfriend Blake Fielder, the film puts pressure on the individual to assess our complicity in creating and permitting the vicious landscape of celebrity culture. Disturbing footage of Winehouse stumbling on stage and refusing to sing at a festival in Belgrade just a month before her death provides a forceful indictment of the
exploitation and mistreatment which got her to this point.
Winehouse’s tentative adoption of celebrity status inevitably evokes the attitudes of the late American folk songwriter Elliott Smith. In a similar vein to Amy, the 2014 documentary Heaven Adores You tracks Smith’s personal and musical development before zooming in on the depression and drug use which
lead to his suicide in 2003. Smith’s deepseated reluctance to enter the world of fame permeates the film, culminating in the unsettling reliving of his performance of the song ‘Miss Misery’ at the Oscars
in 1998. Throughout the film, director Nickolas Rossi sets up an acute juxtaposition between the artificiality of the music industry against the immense honesty and transcendence of Smith’s music.
“Something is happening...and it’s real and it’s cutting a raw-nerve”. These are the words of Seán Croghan (a mainstay on the Portland music scene at the same time as Smith) in reaction to some of Smith’s early acoustic performances. At times in Heaven Adores You, Smith’s music leaves you utterly mesmerised. Recordings of songs such as ‘Waltz #1’ and ‘Say Yes’ along with rarely seen footage of unreleased music reveal the innate connection Smith maintains with his music. Much like in
Amy, Smith’s immense talent radiates through the film, only contributing to the immense tragedy of its conclusion.
Both Amy and Heaven Adores You take on the extremely difficult question of how to portray the lives of individuals whose personal struggles and tragic deaths have dominated the way they have come to be viewed. While their situations and backgrounds obviously differ greatly both films should still be credited with valiantly trying to remove the stigma from their central characters. Both films also explore the devastating effect of the musicians’ personal struggles on those close to them. Winehouse’s friends and family are left to suffer while the media to Smith are seen helpless in preventing his downfall, despite the public nature of his distress. He is seen cutting sets short and forgetting lyrics as the depression takes over.
Amy is not a comfortable viewing nor is it a nostalgic glorification of the singer’s life. It is a repackaging of recent history, and with that comes the danger of annoying a lot of the people involved. However, it is impossible to overlook the problems and abuses which the film unearths. In highlighting the nature of Winehouse’s tragic demise and specifically the callous sentiment of the wider world, Asif Kapadia has created a picture which resonates loudly with western society. It
rehumanizes Amy Winehouse, who has been cruelly misrepresented. Crucially, it incites a change of attitude, an awareness that the world of fame as it is and was must be called into question and rejected.