A haunting, heartbreaking and stunningly brilliant film from Senna director Asif Kapadia, which takes us into the confidence of Amy Winehouse, as the bolshy, big-voiced, jazzy Jewish girl from North London becomes a megastar, while her personal demons, her relationship with a drug addict, and a ravenous, amoral press proceed to rip her to shreds.
Thanks to an abundance of revelatory home video footage, soundtracked by incisive interviews, we see her not only as the beehived, cat- eyed chanteuse or the alarmingly ribbed tabloid quarry, tumbling out of a club at 3am, but as a shy, spotty teen with a seductive offhand confidence in her vocal gift.
I’m not an enormous fan of Winehouse’s music, I think because her deeply personal writing and distinctive, expressive voice tended to be masked by such contrived, Americanised pastiche – trading first on ’30s jazz and then ’60s girl groups – but the portrait that emerges here is uncompromising, thrilling and frequently devastating: of an unhappy girl equipped with a massive talent, but none of the stability or serenity to deal with the perpetual media storm that her success brought upon her.
We see stand-ups and TV presenters laughing at her bulimia and drug abuse, her management pushing her out of rehab and onto foreign stages, and – in the second half – a rapacious, vulturous paparazzi incessantly stalking her, an essential decency chillingly absent. If that was my job, I think I would struggle to watch this film and think: “Yes, what I am doing with my life is essentially fine.”
By contrast, Kapadia’s film is quite beautifully lacking in sensationalism. Though it essentially doubles an indictment of a society almost entirely lacking in basic compassion and empathy, it’s a work that possesses both virtues in apparently limitless amounts, surely compressing and simplifying an impossibly complex narrative, but attaining something that seems awfully like the truth – and apparently is, according to her closest friends.
Amy is a tough watch, but it feels essential, not just for its vivid picture of a fascinating, deeply troubled young woman, but also for its wider significance: as a plea for people to stop being so horribly selfish, to stop seeing excess and illness as ‘rock and roll’ and drug abuse as a joke, and for the media to realise that if it wants to paint itself as a crusading Fifth Estate, then some basic humanity wouldn’t go amiss.
8 out of 10 stars