Monday, July 6, 2015

A Portrait of Amy

This weekend I watched Asif Kapadia's Amy, the much-anticipated documentary exploring the short and volatile life of Amy Winehouse, lifting the veil on who she really was behind the media's one-dimensional 'junkie' fa├žade.

Before watching this film, there was little known about Amy other than the fact that she was a great singer who was notorious, often ridiculed, for her problems with alcohol and drugs. While she was alive, magazines and the internet documented her many substance-fuelled episodes, and I think everyone pretty much forgot that somewhere behind this oppressive media veil and all of the layers of issues, Amy was an extremely talented singer and songwriter who just wanted to be able to make music.

Following the same style as Kapadia's last documentary Senna, this film is structured around archived footage of Amy - some personal moments from her daily life as well as live performances and appearances. Interviews with her close circle of family and friends are layered on top of the footage to piece together the story of her life - at least this version of it.

Of course, a lot can be said with regards the framing of this footage to satisfy Kapadia's particular vision, but while some of Amy's family members (her father in particular) call the outcome inaccurate and untruthful, I think it does extremely well in balancing the tragedy of Amy's personal battles, undoubtedly amplified by constant intrusive media surveillance, with the marvel of the side to the Amy that few have seen before: a sharp, witty, vivacious young woman with a rare and wonderful gift.

It is no wonder that Mitch Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil and others who were close to Amy are less than content with the film, as it shows them to be at best complacent, at worst complicit in her downward spiral. Mitch, whom Amy clearly adored, famously denied her need for rehabilitation in the early stages of her career, while Fielder-Civil admits introducing Amy to crack and heroine after their marriage and being less than supportive of her minor attempts at recovery. No-one (father, manager, etc) had any qualms about letting Amy perform, even go on tour, when she was clearly unwell and unfit to do so, leading to a string of incidents that are almost unbearable to watch - most notably her refusal to sing in front of thousands in Belgrade.

While her family's incapacity to help the situation is frustrating, and viewers including myself are angry at these people for seemingly doing so little to help Amy, there is an undertone of inevitability in the way her story unfolds. Amy was a troubled girl before super-stardom hit, and she admits on several occasions that her experiences - in love, life, and with addiction - are the fuel for her brutally honest, soulful musical output. Clearly, having the whole world watching, on top of everything else, was just too much for her to handle.

For me, the biggest tragedy is that Amy never wanted, nor predicted, this fame. She was a jazz musician, in her element performing on small stages in dimly-lit bars. She wasn't ready to face crowds of thousands at massive arenas or music festivals. Moreover, the media's microscopic lens stripped her of this innate identity and turned her into a worldwide celebrity and pop star, more famous for her bad reputation than her music. The pressure to live up to this role and the total shift away from her original purpose may have been the catalyst that pushed her over the edge, and it's sad to acknowledge that her success came at such a hefty price.

The film forces us to reflect upon the culture of celebrity, the way Amy's unravelling was mercilessly documented, prisoning her in a life of surveillance wherever she went. As is the case for so many, she was completely stripped of her freedom, and every blunder, every relapse, and every mistake was heightened by the whole world watching and commenting. This was made possible by people's demand - visiting gossip websites and buying tabloid magazines, and watching this film makes us recognise a portion (however small) of our own responsibility in Amy's self-destruction.

After watching the film, I was startled by a genuine feeling of loss. I felt Amy's absence hanging in the air, and I stood waiting for the bus home, imagining her walking on the pavement beside me. I felt angry, at the media for ripping her apart, at her family members who could have done so much more to help her, at her manager for pushing her beyond her capacity. But then I hummed the melody to Back to Black, Valerie, Tears Dry on their Own, and I smiled at the incredible legacy she left behind. Her life was undeniably tragic, but her music touched people everywhere, and she will forever be recognised as one of the voices of this generation.