Amy (2015) (R)
I have a crystallized image of Amy Winehouse in my head. She's posing in a bathtub, her head tilted to the left, shrouded in black. It's the cover of her incredibly famous album "Back to Black" which was crucial to me in a time of my life. Like many others, the album meant something to me so personal that the feelings each record evokes are so uniquely there own. It's a connection that few other albums have had with me.
This connection is actually what "Amy" lacks, this driving force that made those precious three or four minutes of each of her songs so beautifully tragic with a catchy rhythm and a knife in the lyrics. These darker notes, what Amy Winehouse is identified with, do not escape director Asif Kapadia, whose critical acclaim as the new voice of documentary film making seems at odds with itself here. The move revels in its own style, its own choices; and the ones that it does make shape the entire watching experience.
There are no talking head interviews, all is done in "radio style interview" as radio British film critic (and favorite of mine) Mark Kermode said; but I don't think that's really the whole story. Most of us fell in love with Amy Winehouse's voice first and thus this should be the medium of a story about a young woman whose fame transformed her into something else.
This is also how the film never criticizes Amy for her decisions and the narrative plays out (quite convincingly so) of a girl who is preyed upon by greedy men who control her because she is so trusting.
In the modus operandi of Winehouse herself, flagrant and cheeky, consider this an angry "fuck you" to the press as an entity. Kapadia makes no time, and frankly his source material suggests no other course of action, apologizing for how the paparazzi tore into Amy as she began each of her downward spirals.
And you should expect nothing else when you watch the movie, for it isn't a happy ending, and it is deeply sad. It's a tragedy that such a talented person had to live such a short, troubled life with turmoils beyond what many of us can compare to.
But the film makes a mistake that many people do too, it reveres Amy to a place of objectification. We are sad to see her go, why? Because of her talent. Because we'll never get to hear that next record and the film does sometimes devolve into this thinking. We see her as our singer of jazzy songs, our old soul in a new world and not as a person.
This is why I came out of the film really not knowing Amy any more than I did going into the film even though the staggering archive footage places the viewer at an uncomfortable closeness to her. There's still a disconnect between us and her because of the third person in the room: the storyteller.
The obviousness of Kapadia's narrative and the way it's chronologically framed only gives the viewer a sense of doom to cling onto, the sense that we are coming up to her untimely death.
Yes, when we see Amy at the end of her rope, emaciated and balancing her drug and alcohol addiction problems with her eating disorder and her fame, we can't help but empathize with her as a person. No one should go through that.
The last minutes of the film are the best because Kapadia pulls back and lets us realize that this is indeed a person that we're talking about, not some honky-tonk piano that we can slide another quarter into. It's only insulting to think that; and it struck me very hard because I've been guilty of that myself.
"Amy" succeeds as a documentary because of the stunning amount of archival footage, yet it doesn't gel as well as something else like "How to Survive a Plague" or even "20 Feet From Stardom" did. Even "Blackfish" made you yearn for those moments of footage because they were the most powerful.
"Amy" is indeed a sad ballad for a lost star. It's an achingly and intimately crafted story; but it is that, a story and Kapadia manages to make menaces out of both Amy's father and the press itself.
But to what end? At the final frame, we can only say that it is such a shame that she is gone.
The emotions that are now weighing down on me are just the result of a long day, "Amy" does not have the staying power of the emotional weight it should. It is sad, but it should be devastating. This is a life that could have been saved, whose music will always serve as a bitter reminder of her beautiful, tragic life.
"Amy" sees the singer as a poet and I think that this is the best respect it could have paid and its smartest move.
Perhaps it's best said by Sylvia Plath:
The blood jet is poetry,
There is no stopping it.
Posted by Micah Jones