The fact that you know how the story will end gives Amy a sense of foreboding, which amplifies as the documentary develops. The film is entirely told through the use of existing footage – much of it previously unseen – and interviews with the most important people surrounding Winehouse during her 27 years.
Through this, director Asif Kapadia weaves together a story about love, addiction, intrusion, and ultimately, the demise of one of Britain’s greatest artists of recent years. Not long into the film, there is a quote from a radio interview with Winehouse, following the release of her first album Frank. “I don’t think I’m gonna be at all famous,” she says, “I don’t think I could handle it. I would go mad.”
She turned out to be completely wrong about the first part, but chillingly clairvoyant about the second. At this point she is mostly filmed by her friend and manager, Nick Shymanksy. She comes across as a funny and irreverent girl, who doesn’t take herself or the industry too seriously. This is perhaps the most fascinating part of the film. It’s the least-seen stage of Winehouse’s life, and reveals much about her years growing up. Kapadia’s interviews extract detail from figures rarely seen in the press, with great effect. Her mother Janis and two best friends from childhood are especially insightful.
Winehouse’s move to Camden in 2005 coincides with the introduction of one of the main antagonists: her future (ex-)husband Blake Fielder-Civil. Kapadia is careful not to place all the blame on individuals, but it is clear that Winehouse’s love for Fielder-Civil contributed to her demise. As she is introduced to cocaine and heroin, she seems to increasingly surround herself with the wrong people, and make the wrong decisions. At this stage, we also learn of her battles with depression and bulimia.
“It begs the question of whether it’s okay to ridicule a public figure who evidently has mental health issues, and is visibly being affected by the attention.”
Despite the story becoming darker as the film progresses, Kapadia gives us the occasional moment of light. Although each of these is tinged with sadness. In one section, Winehouse has finished six months in St Lucia, away from the media glare, clean from drugs (though not alcohol) and seemingly making a full recovery. Then her father Mitch shows up with a camera crew and the downward spiral recommences. The point where you know it could never end well is during the 2008 Grammys. Winehouse, in another clean period, wins – looking both shocked and delighted. Next, we hear an interview from Juliette Ashby, her childhood friend, who was there on the night. Ashby explains that she was pulled aside by Amy, who told her that none of it was fun without drugs.
Despite negative portrayals of Winehouse’s husband and father, Kapadia clearly places the bulk of the blame on media intrusion into this fragile woman’s life. One montage intersperses footage of armies of paparazzi pointing their cameras in Amy’s distressed face. The screen turns almost completely white from the number of flashes – with famous comedians making jokes about her mental state. It begs the question of whether it’s okay to ridicule a public figure who evidently has mental health issues, and is visibly being affected by the attention. The film allows you to make up your own mind. Beautiful, and tenderly put together, Amy allows the existing footage to tell the story in a way that a straight biopic could not. Perhaps the film’s greatest triumph is its soundtrack. Winehouse’s songs are allowed to play uninterrupted at times, bringing added potency once their origins and revealed. Kapadia took the bold decision to show the lyrics on-screen. When accompanied by Winehouse’s velvety voice, it highlights what a great singer-songwriter we lost. However, above all, it shows that we never needed to intrude into her private life to see what Amy Winehouse was really like. It was all there in her songs all along.