Last week I was lucky enough to be able to attend Glastonbury – one of the largest, if not the largest festival in the world. Well known for not only its incredible line-up, but the vast array of alternative arts and entertainment on offer. It seemed apt then, that the choice for the UK premiere of the Amy Winehouse documentary, simply titled Amy, was shown at the festival where some would say she gave some of her best performances.
[You can see the full ones from 2007 & 2008 here, and a clip of 2004].
Thousands turned out to see it, rammed into the smallish Williams Green tent, with hundreds still stood outside, and on an unpredictably scorching day too. Sweat dripping off the roof of the tent as the audience sat, fidgety with anticipation. Those that came didn’t end up leaving, this is a documentary that captivated the entire audience and as predicted by Chris King (Editor) in the Q&A prior to the screening; “you won’t want to go out raving afterwards“.
Words can’t really do it justice, but I will try to do my best (spliced with photos of my trip to Glasto).
Amy comes from the creative team that brought you the highly successful and award-winning Senna; Asif Kapadia (Director), Chris King (Editor) and James Gay-Rees (Producer). If you haven’t sussed it out already, it is about the legendary soul singer, Amy Winehouse. Her unfortunate death was the accumulation of a series of addictions and a build up of mental pressure from tabloid infatuation. These factors are largely what people remember Amy for, at least those outside of her fan-base, and while people may think we know all there is to know about her from the endless tabloid front pages she graced, Amy looks to go beyond the troublesome years that remain most prominent in our minds.
Much like Senna, the creative team had very little prior knowledge of Amy aside from the odd songs that were real commercial successes, or whatever the tabloids decided to spout out that week. In order to gain a balanced view, they undertook the task of stripping it back to the bare minimum, and building up a new picture. They gained full creative control, and were allow to do as they pleased; first task – who was Amy, what was she like, and who knew her? Despite the initial apprehension from Amy’s friends and family, the creative team were able to garner over 100 interviews from people who had any involvement with Amy’s life. The result, is that we are treated to an intimate glimpse into the Amy we did not know. Heartwarming videos and photos showcase her early days as a raw talent, showing her true love for music and her playful likability as an individual. All of this achieved without the need for talking heads or videos of other people: the focus here is Amy, as it always should have been.
The documentary is expertly crafted, extremely personal, appears to be meticulously researched and as with Senna, much can be said for the style of Amy. It feels almost dreamlike, as if you are being taken back in time, and as the interviewees recount tales of Amy’s past you feel a depth of sadness for the talent we lost. The musical elements bring most of the joy to the film, as do the moments we see her personality shine through. From her piercing stare in interviews and blunt answers, or the time she stands proud in a London club, awaiting the Grammy Awards announcement, and jokingly scowls at the sheer thought of Justin Timberlakes song being called “What goes around comes around”. These moments, however brief, are what makes this documentary special, and truly gives us a deep insight into Amy as a person. On the face of it, it’s a perfect documentary, and exactly what they set out to achieve.
As it trawls through the archival footage, and we enter Amy’s darker and more turbulent years, the looming inevitability of what is about to happen edges closer. While Amy made bad choices, many of those around her offered little in the form of a way out. The boyfriend who emotionally and financially played her for drugs, and the public eager to hear more from her as they yell “sing or I want my money back!“, at concerts where the record label have seemingly forced her to do shows she was clearly unable to do. Her father is portrayed, as he describes in a recent Guardian interview, “as a money-grabbing, attention-seeking father who wasn’t there“, but despite what is shown in the film he still thinks otherwise. Many others acted not with Amy’s best intentions, but with their own, and none more so than the horrendous tabloid media who behaved like it was feeding time at the zoo whenever Amy did anything.
The depiction of the tabloid media was one of the most chilling aspects of this documentary. The outcome of Amy is well-known, but with each snap, click, bang on the cars and flash of the cameras, a chill runs down your spine. Unfortunately for Amy, she became a star during a period in which celebrities are photographed in every aspect of their life; whether it’s the simple task of going out for a coffee, having a laugh with some friends, or wearing the wrong colour outfit – the mundane aspects of celebrities lives are interesting to the general public. Chalk some of it up to aspirational culture and the desire to lead another life, but what sells more is the insatiable need to gawk at someone’s misfortune; be it a well-timed photo showing a slight belly roll when they’re sitting up on the beach or someone spilling out of a club off their nut on coke. The public then announce it to the world, sharing the pictures, creating memes, telling jokes as they shout – “WOULD YOU LOOK AT THE STATE OF HER?!”. It’s disgusting, but we’ve all been guilty of it at one point or another.
As one of her bodyguards recounts Amy saying, “If I could give it all back just to walk down the street with no hassle, I would“. Those are not the words of someone who enjoys being famous, and they’re certainly not the words from someone who wanted to continue down the path she was on.
This story does not find fault with any particular party (while it does point the finger occasionally), nor does it glamourise drugs. It shows a young girl who shot to fame, who wanted to share her love of music, but unfortunately it seems that some of those around her lost sight of what was important. She was pushed and pulled in so many different directions, and despite her best efforts and those who actually wanted to help her, the support framework wasn’t strong enough to support her – so she fell. Too many people with too many different agendas, and Amy, stuck in the middle.
Much has been much made of the attempts to lay blame at people’s feet as the family distance themselves from this film. Her father appears concerned about the impact on the Winehouse Foundation, but even before seeing the film fans have called him out for only being concerned about his own portrayal and related success. Blaming people is pointless now, but it is important to emphasise what can happen if individuals do not have the right support network. By shining a light on her trials and tribulations with drugs and alcohol, including her lesser known battle with Bulimia, you would hope that the audiences recognise the wider issues here and look for ways to help if they recognise any of the tell-tale signs in their lives. The extremely important Winehouse Foundation sets out to help with instances just like that. Blaming people creates more hurt and anger, but it was naturally going to occur in this documentary given the circumstances.
As with any biographical documentary, to compile an entire life of a person as complicated as Amy Winehouse into 2 hours is not going to be possible without the slight possibility of overlooking some of the facts. Similarly, it has been noted that she did not have a consistently huge fall from grace spiraling wildly out of control as the film suggests, but for the purposes of creating a compelling documentary, there is little use for showing short periods of clarity when the end is the same. Again, while those close to her may not feel their depiction is truly accurate on an individual basis, what appears to be fundamentally true is that more could have been done to intervene from everyone.
While it is shrouded in contention, I feel that the Winehouse story is almost too personal to get completely right, and that this may be the closest thing we get to a definitive picture of Amy. In my eyes, this exploration of a tragedy to unearth the true Amy Winehouse is a heartbreaking success, filled with lessons everyone can take away, and an excellent reminder of the great talent the world has lost.
Go and see it, whether you’re a fan or not.
Amy is released in cinemas UK wide this Friday 3rd July, with preview screenings taking place across the country this week.