Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Devastating: Asif Kapadia’s Amy

Amy Winehouse at age 14, from Asif Kapadia’s Amy.

Watching Asif Kapadia's powerful and devastating documentary Amy, which encompasses the trajectory of the late Amy Winehouse’s career, I was struck anew by how the best documentaries go beyond expectations to deliver something that often becomes seminal and relevant in a way more ordinary documentaries do not. In other words, if you are a halfway talented filmmaker and tackle decent subject matter, your doc will be worthwhile. It’s the ones that display more ambition and are helmed by master talents that ultimately make a deeper mark. Amy is one such documentary, a tragic screen portrait that will have you in tears by its end.

By the time the talented jazz chanteuse died in July 2011, at the age of 27, directly from alcoholism but more accurately from years of drug abuse, we had seen her rise and fall on TV and in newspaper headlines, almost incessantly documented by tabloid journalists and rapacious paparazzi. And while she was hardly the first pop/rock star to die from an excessive lifestyle, she likely was the most studied and displayed before us, like a deer trapped in the headlights before being hit by the car. There was almost an inevitability to her passing and I suspect it was heightened, even caused in significant ways, by how pervasive was the coverage of her every wrong move and reckless action. And if there is one thing we know about social media and its often parasitic hangers on, it’s that if you’re a public figure, you can’t get away forever with abusing yourself and not expect to, unsympathetically, be pilloried for doing that. Amy Winehouse, too often, appeared negatively in the public eye, even when she should have known better than to display herself, warts and all. It didn’t help, of course, that her biggest supporters and truest friends, were jettisoned by her in her ascension up the pop charts. The other major difference between her and previous musical talents who had the same fate, is that we could catch her out doing it, when nearly thirty five years earlier, an Elvis Presley would destroy himself largely out of sight of his fans and the media.

Perhaps, Amy intuitively knew, even at a young age, that she was doomed not to live out a full life. It might explain why so much of her existence was filmed and recorded in interviews, far more than most of us, at least. (Kapadia uses extensive archival footage and old interviews as well as voice over throughout Amy; there were no direct interviews done for the film.) We first see her nonchalantly belting out a throaty rendition of "Happy Birthday" at a friend’s 14th birthday party and even then it was obvious that she was no mere teenager. Nick Shymanksy, who managed her for a spell, and unlike his successors in her musical orbit, always had her best interests at heart, affectionately refers to her in the film as “a typical North London Jewish girl,” clearly taken by her moxie and forthright altitude. He was also Jewish, which, in this case, made him protective of someone who shared his background and was from his 'hood. You sense that if Amy hadn’t dumped him when she did, as well as distanced herself from her two best childhood friends, Laurent Gilbert and Juliette Ashby who genuinely loved her as a friend and ‘sister’, she might still be with us today. But her twisted, drug-fueled relationship with destructive boyfriend and later husband Blake Fielder (also known as Blake Fielder-Civil) and her dependence on her controlling father Mitchell “Mitch” Winehouse (Amy was a classic Daddy’s girl) meant she likely didn’t have a chance. Mitch is the real villain here, convincing his daughter not to go to rehab when she clearly needed to (hence her sardonic hit song "Rehab" on the subject) and later cavalierly using her as titillating fodder for his own reality show. Amy calls him on it but, sadly, still allows him to pull her strings. (I’d argue that Fielder, despite being a clearly bad influence on Amy, and mistreating her on occasion, was still too fucked up to be fully blamed for how she ended up.) Her family, including Mitch, has slammed the film as "misleading." 

It’s so tragic as Amy Winehouse was an unique artist who, I don’t doubt, would have had one of the more successful careers in music though her travails, including bulimia from a young age, will remind you of none other than jazz great Billie Holiday (problems with drugs, men and mental illness) and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain (too sensitive to cope with being in the public eye and also embroiled in a problematic relationship, with Courtney Love). You can see it in early interviews before the drugs damaged her and the tattoos coarsened her, when this smart, attractive young woman, comfortable in her own skin, impresses her interviewer while sharply and humourously batting back some of his pricklier questions. Contrast that with Amy, at the end of her life, being hustled away from the photographers, and, obliviously, not even realizing where she is. It’s such a stark downfall and one that is exceedingly difficult to watch.

Amy also plays out like a classic rags-to-riches biopic, with Amy bursting forth on the scene, winning awards, appearing on magazine covers in England and later America and, seemingly, not putting a foot wrong. And then it all turns to shit. Clearly that downward spiral took awhile, even though Amy died young, but the movie’s smartly laid out skein delineates it with acute clarity. Amy never feels manipulative and never loses sight of the dear human being it’s all about. It also brings to the fore something I have always been aware of but never felt as powerfully as I did here, namely how the lowest of the low in the media can help destroy a person who is so obviously in deep need of solace and rescue. We know how vile the British tabloid media can be, but watching those reporters sadistically chase down Amy whenever she appears in public, often in deep distress, will make you very angry in a way you would not be if you only read about their despicable behaviour. (It’s no wonder Amy so often lashed out at them but hurt herself in the process, even performing, badly, when she had no business appearing anywhere near a stage.) Equally appalling are the jokes at Amy’s expense made by (then) American.TV talk show Jay Leno and his U.K. counterpart Graham Norton. Somehow their words cut and hurt more as they had the option of sensitively choosing the subject matter they disclaim on or choose not to address; so do the gutter rags but they can at least make the (hollow) claim that they are doing their job for a public that wants to see their pictures.

Amy Winehouse with her father Mitch. (Photo: Fred Duval/FilmMagic)

What grips one most about Amy, even as we cry for what we are watching its subject go through, are the glimpses of the sober, clear-headed Amy sometimes surfacing from the depths of the drug-addicted, out of it singer. (The documentary aptly gives us the lyrics to her songs, partly because she sometimes slurred her words but also to remind us how poetic and memorable her lyrics could be.) Watch her awe when she duets in the studio with legend Tony Bennett, whom she grew up listening to on her dad’s stereo, almost evoking her as a little girl touched by one of her first and lasting influences. You can see how she can barely believe this matchup is happening; it’s a lovely and touching moment. (Bennett, to his credit, is very kind to and respectful of Ms. Winehouse even when she has trouble getting her part right, so affected and nervous is she by his mere presence next to her.) So, too, is Nick Shymanksy’s tender voiceover as he describes a sober Amy looking forward to his wedding and, giddily, reverting back to their old, affectionate relationship. (She died on the eve of his nuptials.) And when Juliette Ashby describes the call Amy makes to her, softly apologizing for the long rift she allowed to come between the old friends, you briefly hope that this renewed connection will somehow save Amy, even as you know it did not.

Of course, one can be tempted to be an armchair quarterback and try to figure out where it all went wrong. If Amy hadn’t met Blake-Fielder or hadn’t listened to the wrong people or not succeeded as quickly as she did in attaining fame before she was ready to handle it, well maybe this movie would have been very different or not needed to be made at all. But that’s too facile and Kapadia, fortunately, never makes the mistake of analyzing why Amy’s life turned out as it did. He is content to simply show us what did happen to her, pay homage to her talent and presence and remind us who she was and why she mattered. That should be and is enough. Rest in peace Amy.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he has concluded a course entitled A Filmmaker/A Country. The course looked at various great filmmakers (Akira Kurosawa, Francesco Rosi, Jafar Panahi and others) who have come to represent their country, at home and abroad, simply because they evince a deep curiosity about what makes their homeland tick, in terms of its people, its history, and its interactions with outsiders and their influences. He will be teaching a course on documentary cinema at LIFE Institute in the fall.

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