Film Review: The Devastatingly Sad Story of "Amy"

When Amy Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning in July 2011 the media response was a predictable mix of endless tributes to her staggering talent and equally endless questions about what should be learned from her passing (needless to say, ‘that we should stay respectfully silent’ didn’t seem to be among those possible lessons). That was inevitable, of course: her talent was staggering. That fact is abundantly clear from even the opening moments of "Amy," when a normal-looking 16 year old Winehouse suddenly bursts forth with that distinct honeyed voice using jazz phrasing not heard in the mainstream since the time of Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. 

And yet, tributes to Winehouse’s talent tended to ring false, and there was a similar insincerity when people debated the ‘meaning’ of her demise. Perhaps this is the problem when somebody becomes first a star, then tabloid fodder, then dies and is then immortalised in legend: they cease to be one of us, precisely because we’re all looking at them, but in all kinds of strange ways we still feel as if they are - particularly when the figure in question is conspicuously fallible. For all her media coverage, Winehouse remained a strangely mysterious figure, and when she died there was a sense of the world rushing to take ownership of somebody it never truly knew. 

"Amy," by contrast, never tries to fetishize Winehouse, or paint her as some preternaturally-gifted superhuman. Director Asif Kapadia (known for the BAFTA-winning Senna) instead guides us through the life of an ordinary girl, whose not-so-ordinary talent sent her on a path few could have foreseen. Whether or not it is definitive, it provides an objective version of events that seeks to make some sense of the singer’s all-too-brief life. 

As she is pulled further from her music and deeper into the realms of celebrity, her bewilderment is easy to empathise with

We begin with an 18 year old Winehouse at the start of her career. Rather than using talking heads, Kapadia compiles a constant, immersive stream of public and personal footage, showing how she first earned a record contract and built a name for herself. There are moments of cruel dramatic irony, such as when Winehouse laughs off the idea that she might become famous - and in fact it’s easy to see why fame was such a ludicrous idea to her. Glimpsing life from the other side of the paparazzi lens, we see Winehouse as little more than a vivacious young woman with a pure passion for music. As she is pulled further from her music and deeper into the realms of celebrity, her bewilderment is easy to empathise with. 

Kapadia’s intention doesn’t seem to be to point fingers

Kapadia may have been blasted by Winehouse’s father, Mitch, for casting him in a negative light, but Kapadia’s intention doesn’t seem to be to point fingers. Rather than dwelling on what might have been, he shows what did occur. There are a few tantalising ‘what if?’ moments – what if she had gone to rehab? Could she have sacrificed her success for stability? - but for the most part Amy maintains a sober, direct approach, leaving any conjecture to the audience (and despite knowing the film’s conclusion from the outset, it is hard to avoid praying that somehow things might turn out differently). 

Ex-husband Blake Fielder might be portrayed as the disruptive force who introduced Winehouse to heroin and cocaine, but he is hardly a pantomime villain. Likewise, the Winehouse family never seem uncaring – they have their foibles like any family, and simply prove ill-equipped to handle the maelstrom into which addiction throws their daughter. 

Kapadia also avoids lambasting the media too heavily, but then again, the fact that almost all footage of Winehouse from 2007 onwards is framed by a constant flashing of cameras makes this unnecessary. Viewers, most of whom will have followed Winehouse’s mounting struggles in the press, are likely to feel an uneasy sense of complicity. 

When a celebrity dies in circumstances like Winehouse’s, phrases like ‘tortured genius’ and ‘wasted potential’ are routinely used. When a documentary is then made about that person’s life, it would be equally easy to rely on the stock phrase ‘celebration of life’. In truth, though, "Amy" cannot be described as a straightforward celebration of Amy Winehouse’s life. It may pay tribute to both the artist and the woman, but Kapadia doesn’t search for a non-existent silver lining. "Amy" is many things: a study of a singular talent, which fully embraces Winehouse’s musicianship; a startling portrait of addiction, which shows how easily drugs and alcohol can shatter a life; a cautionary tale, which we would all do well to remember next time a star goes ‘off the rails’. Above all else, though, "Amy" is one thing – a devastatingly sad story. 


More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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