Amy: Cannes 2015 review

p02rmlyxA new documentary looks at the life of the talented but troubled singer Amy Winehouse – but does it reveal anything new? Nicholas Barber takes a look.

Asif Kapadia’s award-winning documentary, Senna, had car crashes aplenty. It’s tempting to say that his follow-up, Amy, depicts one long car crash, from start to finish. A compassionate profile of Amy Winehouse, the influential British singer-songwriter who died of alcohol poisoning in 2011 at the age of 27, Amy shows its subject skidding here and there, and then spinning out of control, but for most of the film we’re simply watching her crumple and shatter. Like all grievous car crashes, this one is heartbreaking, and it exerts a magnetic pull, but it’s not all that enlightening.

Kapadia uses the same format he employed so skilfully on Senna. That is, rather than shooting any new footage, he combs the archives for chat show appearances, news reports and home videos that already existed when Winehouse was alive. (You may feel that if her associates had spent less time pointing cameras at her, she might have been happier.) And rather than having a single, all-knowing narrator, Kapadia interviews her friends, relatives and colleagues, and then dubs their reminiscences and opinions onto his deftly assembled footage. Two of these unseen speakers, her closest childhood friends, sound as if they are on the verge of tears.

It’s a terribly sad film, partly because Winehouse was so loved, and partly because she seems to be doomed from its very beginning: well before she is winning Grammies and dodging the paparazzi, she is a bulimic drug user, damaged by her parents’ divorce, and she declares that that she isn’t stable enough to handle fame. But the most depressing aspect of the story is that her death was a waste of such an extraordinary talent. The documentary proves beyond contradiction that, beehive and sailor tattoos aside, Winehouse was a one-in-a-million jazz chanteuse, with a gift for crafting hooky but idiosyncratic songs. Besides, when she clowns with her friends, it’s plain that she could have made a living as a comedian even if she had never sung a note.

With all due deference to Kapadia’s sensitivity and storytelling, however, Amy isn’t essential viewing, as Senna was. The snag is that we know the grim tale already. Rock documentaries often claim to reveal the truth behind the tabloid headlines, and the person behind the music, but with Winehouse, what you saw was what you got. Her short, sensational life really was a series of blaring tabloid headlines, and her music communicated her most intimate feelings. Thanks to her genius for turning her experiences into songs, and her insistence on being her ostentatious self at all times, Kapadia can’t uncover a side of her which hasn’t been on view for years in her interviews and on her albums.

It may be harrowing to see her mutating from a bubbly imp to a stumbling cadaver, but the film’s only revelation is that some of the men in her life were even more obnoxious than we thought. First among these is her father, Mitchell Winehouse. According to the documentary, he was never around when his daughter was growing up, and he was never not-around when she was rich and famous. Winehouse Sr has complained about this portrayal, but when you see a frail Amy recuperating away from the spotlight in Saint Lucia, only for Mitchell to turn up with a television camera crew in tow, it’s hard to be sympathetic. Still, he’s a perfect gentleman compared to her ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, the Camden scenester who gets Winehouse hooked on crack cocaine and heroin, and then dumps her after he gets clean. Now that he is healthy and handsome, he explains in one interview, why would he waste his time on her? What a charmer.

As compelling as this material may be, though, it’s so familiar that it’s almost clichéd. It’s not just that Winehouse’s own troubles are so well-chronicled. It’s more that we’ve heard about so many other celebrities being torn apart by drink and drugs, mercenary Svengalis, the predatory media, the pressures of fame. Winehouse was torn apart by all of the above. It’s hardly Kapadia’s fault that she walked down such a well-worn path, but every self-destructive step she takes in the film is one that someone else has taken before. That’s what was so tragic about her.

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