I went to see Asif Kapadia’s documentary Amy yesterday at noon and the 12:30 showing was sold out. The 7:00pm and 10:15pm shows were also already sold out. “Lots of people wanting to see that movie today – said the guy at the box office – most of them senior citizens.” I don’t really care what demographic is making up the bulk of Amy as much as I am glad to see people interested in the movie. Audiences are integral to a movie’s existence. I know that this sounds like a “well, duh” statement, but how often do we really *think* about this aspect of moviemaking? I’ve been thinking a lot about this since seeing Amy. Being a candid portrait of the life and tragic death of a young celebrity, the movie is particularly interested in the role the masses played in the star’s rise to success and her overwhelming downward spiral.
Sure, by “the masses” I mean people who bought into the trainwreck narrative the tabloids were selling in one of the biggest collective schadenfreude spectacles I have witnessed. It also means people who loved Winehouse and her music. Her fans. The people that bought her albums and downloaded her songs. The one who made her famous and financially successful. By most accounts these fans wanted nothing but the best for the artist, but also helped to seal her fate by making her rich. If it sounds like I’m trying to point the finger and accuse people of contributing to the death of this young woman, then I must apologize and say this is not my intention. Neither is it Kapadia’s. There are people who come out looking like particularly toxic presences in Winehouse’s life (chief among them her oportunistic dad Mitch Winehouse), but the director’s main objective is not to solve what happened to Winehouse, but to paint a full picture of how the narrative people were fed by the press connects with the brain of a young woman.
Amy paints what we know about the artist in a different light. There is the time, for example when Winehouse, who was finally starting to come to terms with sobriety, was pulled back into a string of concerts she didn’t want to be a part of. Why couldn’t she just cancel the performances? Financial reasons. The movie features footage of Winehouse’s infamous performance in Belgrade, where she went on stage and refused to sing. At the time, the press made it seem as if Winehouse was too out of her mind to even be able to sing. This movie reveals a much more tragic backstory. Seeing Winehouse sit still on stage and hearing the boos from the Serbian audience, one wonders what was going on inside this young woman’s head. What was the real story behind this her complicated life and tragic death.
But then again, Amy is not an exposé, or just another “Behind the Music” type of story. Like he did in his previous documentary about Formula 1 racer Ayrnton Senna (another celebrity who died a tragically young death), Kapadia assembles Amy out of pre-existing footage of the artist both in interviews, concerts, and personal recordings. The result is uncanny and invaluable. We see the artist in some of her darkest moments, as she is consumed by her eating disorders and addictions, but we also see Winehouse singing happy birthday to her friend, speaking in a ridiculous Spanish accent, and joking around. By the end of the movie, we not only know about Winehouse, we kind of know her. We can imagine how she would behave, and what she would say is she were sitting across from us. We understand her as a human being, he empathize her, we connect with her, and we finally understand the true depths of her tragedy.
Amy is a very sad movie, but also a beautiful one. Calling it a celebration would be wrong, because it doesn’t invite us to view Winehouse as a tortured genius who was destined to meet a tragic end. In fact, the movie is almost neutral in its depiction of Winehouse. It isn’t trying to say how we should feel about her, it is just presenting us to her, you know, as a person. Amy invites us to re-discover the power of Winehouse’s legacy, and to examine the way we use our empathy. Do we ever turn our empathy switches off, and if we do, why? What did we gain from this artist’s life and career, and what did Winehouse?
Grade: 8 out of 10