Film Review: Amy (2015)

Documentary film is one of the last mediums that has stayed free of over-the-top visual effects and graphics. I’m not saying they are immune from using this crutch, but it’s not as in your face as Avatar. The objective for documentarians is to gain awareness and appeal to the humanity or emotional side of their subject.

Humanity is exactly what filmmaker Asif Kapadia set out to accomplish with his newest documentary, Amy. The film follows the rise and fall of Amy Winehouse focusing on both her artistry and her debauchery.

The film begins with Amy at 16 years old just about to start singing professionally. A friend of hers, Nick Shymansky, has “discovered” her and begins working as her manager to get an album cut. Everyone wants Amy to shine and be successful. No one has ill-will toward her and can only speak positively about her as a person and talent.

In the footage, Amy makes singing look easy. She looks like she has never worked a day in her life because she’s having fun. She states that she has no desire to be famous. “I don’t think I could handle it. I’d go mad.” With this one line of dialogue, the film is set up as we see her “madness” develop through alcohol and drugs.

Her downfall really began when Blake Fielder entered her life, her eventual husband. She is shown to be completely dependent on him and devoted to whatever he says and does. It’s his drug using that got her hooked and started her down the path to her death. But the film leads us to believe that Blake is not the only villain. Her father, Mitch, who conveniently shows back up in her life in time for her to be rich and famous, is a main antagonist.

What hit me while watching–through the villainizing of her father, husband, and even mother–was Amy never takes responsibility for her actions. Even the filmmakers ignore this. She never owns up to being at fault. It’s always someone else who has pushed her a certain way. Her father pushed her to do one more gig, her husband put the needle in her arm, her posse looked the other way. For someone who is an adult, she never grows up.

We’re told that Amy was always asking for someone to tell her to stop. She was asking for a babysitter–someone to tell her no. But no one tells her no. Even her mother, in her interview, sounds like she washed her hands of Amy years before. They saw what was happening, but no one did anything to stop her. Mitch says, how do you stop someone from destroying themselves? When it’s your daughter, you find a way. Am I wrong?

* * * * *

It was incredibly lucky that Amy was a millennial. She and her friends filmed a lot of her life between early interviews, regular conversations, etc. We could see Amy as a human and as a child. It makes her a lot more sympathetic and then pathetic when we see how she is pushed down the rabbit hole.

You physically see her transformation through all of this B-footage. Her hair gets bigger, her body gets smaller, and her decorated eyelids are closing ever more.

My other thought about this film is, why was it made? There is no lesson to the film. No one comes out and says, “Don’t do drugs,” or “The limelight will kill you.” It’s just a look at her life. Which is usually what these types of documentaries are about, but again, I ask the question, why? To what purpose? Hasn’t she suffered enough? Now, a film is made about her, nominated already for awards, all to serve the filmmakers. They are still capitalizing on this tragic figure.

When the film came out, the marketing team for the film must have been working full-force. Spotify had playlists featuring her music, the Amy Winehouse Foundation page had more traffic with new things to make money from, and even GQ published a blog about everyone needing to hear Valerie on her birthday, just a few days ago. She keeps coming up and reviving the sad story of her death.

Lawrence Toppman of the Charlotte Observer said, “Had Amy Winehouse not been a briefly famous musician – had she been an architect or a teacher or even a woman who mopped floors – the documentary Amy might have been nearly as compelling.” 

The film is well-made and well-executed. I was so relieved there were no talking heads. It was all voice over and B-footage of her life. This made it flow easier and didn’t become dull watching a static image. At about two hours, I don’t think the filmmakers could have afforded to do that anyway.

Already nominated at Cannes, East End Film Festival, and Edinburgh International Film Festival, Amy is a film that re-hashes the tabloid-rife life Amy led. She is a tragic figure that deserves the accolades she won, but she should rest in peace. Remember her voice and her influence; not her drugs, drink, or death.

2 out of 5 stars

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