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.