If there were ever any doubts about the toxic and shameful damage that fame can have once the meat hooks have taken hold then look no further than this profoundly sad and deeply moving documentary about the extinguishing of a unique talent.
Anyone who casts their eyes over the mainstream media will likely have formed a preconception about Amy Winehouse.
What Asif Kapadia’s comprehensive and absorbing documentary triumphantly achieves is to read between the lines of the numerous drink and drug-related articles that were written about the hugely successful British singer and instead tell a painstakingly researched story of a flawed woman who found herself lost in a self-destructive spiral as her rare talent became a tool in which to be exploited.
Much like the subject of his debut doc Senna (2011) about Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna, Kapadia has spoken of his interest in taking Winehouse off her pedestal and casting a human gaze on a profoundly gifted individual. Working from this brief, Kapadia and his team carried out around 100 interview with friends, family, partners and music industry figures who knew and worked with her and, just like in Senna, let’s them do the talking; telling Winehouse’s story through their eyes and mouths.
The film follows a chronological path, with certain figures such as ex-manager and friend Nick Shymanksy playing a bigger part early on before falling away to let others take centre stage. The two who come to the fore most in the latter half of the film are her father Mitch and husband Blake Fielder-Civil.
Both speak honestly about their time with Amy, but neither comes out of the film with much sympathy. Fielder-Civil essentially admits to having introduced his wife to heroin, a decision that proved to be catastrophic (a TV interview in which he bigs himself up and ‘reveals’ information about their relationship casts him in a particularly unsavoury light), while the actions of her father, in particular the fact he brought along a reality TV crew to her St Lucia hideaway, have seen him denounced as a gold-digger – something he has strenuously denied in interviews in which he accuses the film of bias.
There’s a telling moment that takes place early in the film during a 2003 interview with a broadsheet journalist when the then up-and-coming singer jokingly states: “I don’t think I’m going to be at all famous… I’d probably go mad.”
It’s one of numerous moments that, inevitably, have a bittersweet weight to them in hindsight and lend the film a heart-rending tragedy as it winds painfully to its endpoint in 2011 when her body was discovered in her London flat; the singer having died from alcohol poisoning.
This journey is none more despairing than when we catch a glimpse of the emaciated figure of Winehouse staring dead-eyed at a camera in her home; her face cast in a ghostly pallor by the light of a laptop screen. It’s a lifetime away from the fresh-faced teenager we see at the start of the film whose rich and sonorous voice is used for pleasure, not profit.
Kapadia’s undoubted intention is to leave you to make your own mind up; for myself it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that too many people close to Winehouse were seemingly more interested in exploiting her talent for their own ends, rather than nurturing both it and her to go on to do even more special things.
Whilst Amy Winehouse’s music will remain, so to will this captivating documentary of a singer whose story shines a harsh spotlight on the celeb-baiting world we have created.
One of the best films and documentaries I’ve seen this year. To tell the truth, I was pretty devastated by its end, even though it brought me closer to Amy’s talent and music. I’d been on the periphery to her work, listening to bits here and there, and usually picking up on those criticizing her substance abuse later in her career. This flipped that all around and I remain, as you, firmly against those who thought more of themselves than Amy. A film that captured her loss, and cut deep in doing it. Wonderful write-up, Mark.
Thank you mate. Kapadia has got a canny touch with managing to cut through the shit and present as honest a portrait of someone as you can get from multiple perspectives. From those perspectives the real Amy emerges. It’s a fantastic work of documentary cinema.
Excellent review Mark. I didn’t really know much about Amy before I saw this but I was captivated by it. I left feeling very upset and it played on my mind for days afterwards (much as Senna did). It felt very fair too, which is the work of a gifted filmmaker.
Thank you! As mentioned in the review, the film has come under fire from some members of Amy’s family and I guess you can’t dismiss that. However, it’s hard not to get the feeling that there’s a reason they don’t like being exposed in that way…
Nice work Mark. I really enjoyed this film and thought it was very moving. It’s balanced, despite her father’s criticism of it, and I’m glad it gives quite a substantial platform to her friends and former manager, whose opinions were never really heard during the messy tabloid years.
Apreciate that Stu. It’s easy for the loudest voices to be the ones that get heard most, but Kapadia is smart enough to let others have their say as well. It’s a real highlight.
I’m not familiar w/ Amy Winehouse at all but I’m still curious to see this one Mark. Nice to see you rated this highly as many others do.
Me neither Ruth, Mark do you think this would be a good watch for someone who has no idea who she is? All I’d heard of was the name, hell I didn’t even know she had died :S
Yeeeah I’m not good with pop culture
Hey Jordan. Yes, I would definitely say you don’t nned to know anything about Amy Winehouse to still enjoy this. If anything, it will open your eyes.
Thank you for the comment Ruth. It really is a very well put together doc that strikes a commendable balance.
Good stuff, my man! I’m very eager to catch up with this. Winehouse was genuine talent.
She certainly was. I can’t say I was her biggest fan, but it opened my eyes (and ears) to how special she was and could have been. What a waste.
I actually wasn’t much of fan while she was around but my missus was. It wasn’t until she died that I paid more attention and really appreciated her talent. She was a special act, man! Such a shame!
My apologies good sir, I can’t believe it’s been a week and a half since this review went up. I need to start managing my time more efficiently, otherwise i’ll keep missing out on profound reviews like this one. Yours is really the only one that’s made me want to see this. There have been a couple of factors that initially disinterested me. 1) Amy Winehouse seemed like a ball of self-destruction, much like Kurt Cobain, who was also an incredible talent but tragically caught up in his own head space and unable to get away from it. (This judgment I feel is a bit harsh b/c, having read this, you make a great point about how her career basically converted into a platform for profiteering for others. Disgraceful. I didn’t have this information at the time.) 2) (Which is the bigger problem) This documentary just seems so damn sad and depressing. I’ll probably wrestle with issue #2 more, but I’m much more inclined to see this now.
No worries! I’m hardly one to talk at the moment; I’m struggling to keep up. ‘Profound’! That’s very kind mate! I won’t lie, the final act of the film is terribly sad, but I wouldn’t say it’s depressing. It’s hard to watch for sure, but by that time you’re so invested in the film and Winehouse as a figure you don’t think about it. Oddly, even though I knew how it ended, I was still whispering to the film “don’t do that Amy; there’s still time to turn your life around…”. Bit odd I know, but that’s the power the film has.
I am far more keen on checking this thing out now with all those things in mind. Winehouse. What a tragic figure. I also need to see Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. You seen that?
Not yet; it’s on the list.
Great review. I really need to see this. Fame is a real bitch but this poor thing had no supports. Tough life.
Yeah man. Certain people don’t come out of this very well in my opinion and they tend to hang themselves with what they say.