Amy Winehouse’s immediate reaction to winning the Grammy for record of the year in 2008 is endearing to watch without context. Upon hearing her name, her eyes widen and her breathing quickens, and then, after standing momentarily paralyzed, she runs to her friends and plunges into their celebratory embraces. Her visible sense of shock suggests the award is a dream come true, the ultimate confirmation that she has achieved success.
However, when viewed within the context of her life story, documented in Asif Kapadia’s new film Amy, Winehouse’s Grammy award seems more like a death knell. The Grammy was not her dream, and stardom had been killing her for years. Essentially, winning the biggest award in music made her sentence inescapable. Three years later she died of alcohol poisoning.
Kapadia’s documentary depicts how Winehouse emerged as a precocious, jazz-obsessed adolescent girl who just wanted to sing some songs but whose soulful voice and matchless wit brought her fame she never wanted and could never manage. Amy is exceptionally intimate for a historical documentary, due to Kapadia’s using almost exclusively found footage. For the film, he interviewed dozens of Winehouse’s family members, friends, and music partners, but we never see those interviews. Instead, we hear the interview subjects’ voices recorded over found footage, much of which comes from home and phone recordings. Kapadia artfully selected and weaved together those home recordings with other archival footage, voice-over, and music. Crafted in such a way, Amy makes a distinct contribution to documentary filmmaking, demonstrating how nonprofessional footage can provide a film’s most intimate moments as well as the substance of the film’s drama.
Among the most poignant moments in Amy are the several sequences that play like musical intermissions during the film. With Winehouse’s life story arranged before us while her songs play, we more clearly discern her song lyrics’ meanings and the pain from which they were born. The film depicts Winehouse’s longtime relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil as one of the most destructive forces in her life—and, consequently, as the inspiration for much of her writing. He was a drug addict whose commitment to Winehouse fluctuated and whose influence contributed to her resisting rehabilitation. Thus, when “Love Is a Losing Game” plays over a montage of clips featuring Winehouse and Fielder-Civil together, we are struck with the knowledge of how much she will in fact lose with him.
In Amy, we also see that stardom is a losing game—and one that Winehouse never wanted to play. Early in her career, when she was just enjoying writing and singing songs, she exclaimed that she would “go mad” if she became famous. Several years later, after she had become a star, after the paparazzis had been hounding her incessantly, after her father became dependent on her celebrity status, she lamented, “If I could give it back just to walk down that street with no hassle, I would.”
While each of Winehouse’s songs become more heartrending when played over the film reel of her life, her first single, “Stronger Than Me,” becomes almost haunting. In that song, she croons, “You should be stronger than me / You’ve been here seven years longer than me / Don’t you know you supposed to be the man / Not pale in comparison to who you think I am.” Beyond the song’s obvious rebuke to a deadbeat partner, Winehouse composed “Stronger Than Me” out of her deepest fears regarding her developing relationship with a celebrity-crazed public. She anticipated the public’s expectations of her as a celebrity, and she pleaded with us to be stronger.
Unfortunately for her and ourselves, however, we are weak.
Whether or not we were fans of Winehouse when she was alive, we become complicit
in the culture that contributed to her death whenever we consume media that dehumanizes celebrities. Viewers of Amy will be quick to point fingers at Winehouse’s father and at Fielder-Civil for their contributions to Winehouse’s struggles—and those two undoubtedly deserve criticism—but we should also critically examine our own media consumption habits and the cultural consequences of them.
Asif Kapadia’s Amy is a documentary tragedy depicting the downfall of a young woman whose ability to manage the pressures of stardom did not match her ability to write and sing popular music. Using almost exclusively found footage, Kapadia presents Amy Winehouse’s story from her late teenage years to her descent into drug addiction and eventually her death at 27. Winehouse was not strong enough to handle being a star, but how many people are? More importantly, how many of us are strong enough to resist participating in the celebrity-crazed culture that requires stars to be so strong?
Amy opened last week in select theaters nationwide and opens in various theaters in the Triangle today.