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United Kingdom 2015
Directed by
Asif Kapadia
128 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4 stars

Amy (2015)

Synopsis: Singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse died in 2011 at the age of 27 of alcohol poisoning. She had won many prestigious music awards but was blazoned in the tabloids as a troubled star with issues of alcohol, drugs and bulimia. This powerful documentary takes archival footage of her life and  combines it with lyrics of her songs and interviews with those who knew her to give a heart-breaking portrait of a remarkable talent snuffed out all too soon.

The team behind this film was responsible for Senna, a terrific portrait of the ill-fated racing driver. Now comes this even more powerful, moving and at times profoundly disturbing portrait of a gifted artist unable to handle fame and who was not treated with care by those who could have possibly averted her demise.

The film-makers started by assembling as much footage as they could of Amy’s too short life. So we have the typical home style videos of her teenage years, cavorting for the camera, while fooling with friends. She comes across as a normal bubbly outgoing youth with an edge of zaniness and rebelliousness. But there is nothing normal about her stunningly rich jazz voice, especially in one so young, with the sort of modulations and interpretations associated with the greats, like Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, one of Amy’s idols. For those of us who only know her from the chart-busting song “Rehab” it is a shock to discover what a true jazz diva she was and a skilful jazz guitarist to boot.

Intermingled with the videos of her life are interviews from those who were involved with her: managers, boyfriends, parents and close school friends. The many segments of Amy performing her songs are accompanied by the projection upon the screen of the lyrics, which are in a way a key to unravelling her complex personality. Most of the songs are intensely personal and written perhaps in an attempt to exorcise her demons.  

Seeing someone so talented and likeable unravel in real footage on the big screen is very confronting. The bubbly Jewish “girl next door” from North London finds fame, cannot cope with it, and a combination of circumstances start her descent into hell. She turns into a tortured addict, hounded by the paparazzi, who are depicted as exactly the horrific vultures we hear of. Despite many attempts at going clean, Amy is simply not able to make rehab stick. Certainly some of the men in her life come across as villains – her father Mitch (who, unsurprisingly, has slammed the film) seems like a self-serving money-grubber, dismissive of his daughter’s troubles. Blake Fielder-Civil, one of  her many boyfriends and her husband for a short time, is credited with starting Amy on hard drugs. However director Kapadia resists laying blame at any one person’s feet – and of course the singer’s own self-destructive nature cannot be excluded. By the time we see her drunken and disoriented on a stage in Belgrade, our hearts are breaking for her, and we suspect (even if we don’t know the story in advance) that there will be no happy endings here.

Much of the early video footage is grainy and jagged and the film-makers opt at times for a jerky stop-start approach which at first seems a bit annoying, but which comes to suit the very nature of Amy’s turbulent life. Near the film’s end, in a rare moment of clarity in Amy’s life, is a moving scene where she records with another of her idols, Tony Bennett, and everything about this scene underscores the tragedy and loss to the world of this talent.

 

 

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