Poster by T.A.
Why the Amy Winehouse film is little better than the paps who hounded her
Asif Kapadia’s documentary, which chronicled Winehouse’s turbulent and brief life, walks a thin line between insight and exploitation
Wednesday 22 July 2015 15.44 BST
In our image-saturated culture, where we sit drooling at our computer screens hungry for the latest bit of celebrity gossip, it’s no wonder that we are all fascinated by the Amy Winehouse story. Graphic and upsetting in equal measure, the narrative of the talented yet troubled artist who struggles to reconcile her artistic ambitions with society’s demand for celebrity satisfies our hunger on all counts. Just like a car crash, we want to look away but we simply can’t.
If you think I’m being disrespectful in reducing an upsetting story of self-destruction into a bite-sized bit of gossip then I would have to agree with you.
Unfortunately, this seems to be the attitude of the new documentary Amy, which compiles personal footage and talking heads to canonise Winehouse. Critics have applauded it – Mark Kermode calling it a “sober, unsensational and overwhelmingly sad film” and Robbie Collin from The Daily Telegraph “piercingly sad and honourable film” – seemingly to focus on the heart-wrenching nature of the story and empathise with the subject rather than the form.
Crucially, all the critics seem to overlook the film’s exploitative lens: a lens that lingers on intimate images of Winehouse gaunt and high, or on the shocking footage of her body being removed from her Camden home in a body bag. One that leers at her bulimia-wrecked form or even more questionably, uses paparazzi footage in the same breath as explaining how being hounded by the press drove her closer to breaking point. The documentary lacks a voice, supplementing this void with a tabloid-esque scrapbook timeline transposed to screen. Using personal footage and amateurishly inscribing her lyrics across the stage as she sings them, it is reminiscent of a fan-made YouTube video. The documentary seems to lack any moral control, instead stacking one image of a drunken Winehouse on top of another, gradually effacing its own credibility.
The reluctance to call out the film for being tragedy porn misplaces the sensitivity we should feel when dealing with the Winehouse story. I’m unsure why the reviews fail to address it: probably as a result of conflating respect for Winehouse with respect for the film. In fact, I think the inverse should be true here – anyone who wishes to be considerate of the posthumous star and her family should strongly question the film. Indeed, how can anyone familiar with the story feel comfortable watching footage of her in such vulnerable condition? It is footage that contributes nothing aesthetically or narratively to the film, working only to accentuate the shock factor.
Amy poses important questions about the way we memorialise artists, and indeed, whether gender plays a part in the way we remember them, or even deal with them when they’re alive. Part of me would have felt better consuming something that gave the graphic imagery a value, though this in itself is not watertight ethically. Why is it acceptable to show images of Winehouse slurring her lyrics on stage high or drunk or both, under the guise of art?
The truth is, I felt no artistic catharsis to justify the images I saw. Instead, I was left feeling uncomfortable, ashamed that I’d been complicit in the tabloid culture that in part pushed Winehouse into exactly the darkness that the film attempted to document.