Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse film is a tragic masterpiece
Saturday 16 May 2015 09.55 BST
A star is born — all over again. Asif Kapadia’s documentary study of the great British soul queen Amy Winehouse, who died of alcohol poisoning at the age of 27, is stunningly moving and powerful: intimate, passionate, often shocking, and almost mesmerically absorbing.
Like Kapadia’s previous study of doomed motor-racing star Ayrton Senna, this does not use talking heads, but is instead visually based on extant footage of chat-shows and awards-events and also an extraordinary trove of private video shot by friends and lovers who were clearly transfixed by Winehouse’s extraordinary personality, and perhaps, who knows, aware that what they were recording might be of grim future interest. At some stage as a teenager, Winehouse adopted her feline eyeliner style — a style that Caitlin Moran has written about brilliantly, the kind of makeup you develop through applying it while looking into a car or bus wing-mirror.
It’s a movie that responds instantly to Winehouse’s music and to the mystery of her voice: a rich Sarah Vaughan style that seemed to belong to a much older woman. This would switch, off-mike, to her speaking voice: eloquent and seductive, the unashamed, unpretentious, utterly relaxed sound of north London. (Jonathan Ross is shown congratulating her on sounding “common”: and actually, his identifying the elephant in the room was to the point — although the film does not press the point of how that rich singing voice just seemed to surge up from nowhere.)
The film also responds to Winehouse’s face: that sensual and jolie-laide presence, always so mobile and yet possessed of a strange kind of anti-Mona-Lisa enigma. There is a fantastic scene where Kapadia shows Winehouse’s face almost twitching and popping with bored disdain while an inane interviewer insists on asking her about Dido.
We start with Amy’s teen years, circling back to a troubled though hardly deprived childhood in which she was deeply affected, first by her father Mitch walking out on the family — and then later, just as deeply affected by his returning to becoming a strange sort of intrusive, ineffective and almost parasitic Svengali to her career. It was Mitch who crucially advised Amy against going into rehab, a decision which Amy herself noted in her great song, replete with agony, betrayal and self-doubt.
All of these advisers, promoters and managers jostle to assure us that they themselves were not responsible for Amy Winehouse’s descent into drugs and overwork, and Kapadia simply lets us make our own mind up, although it is the hapless Mitch who appears in the darkest light, despite having the most heartbreakingly good intentions. All through her life, Amy was desperate to devote herself to a strong male protective figure: either Mitch, or her equally troubled and charmless husband Blake Fielder-Civil, who appears to have introduced her to hard drugs and a co-dependent, dysfunctional relationship in which he perpetually resented his own insignificance. There is a harrowing voicemail message in which Amy offers “unconditional love”, her voice pulsing with loneliness — a kind of musicless torch song in itself. One of the film’s bleakest moments shows Amy saucer-eyed at a London event, watching the Grammys on television, and at the moment she wins, taking a friend aside to confess that this whole thing is “so boring without drugs”.
Inevitably, it is the song Rehab itself which is Winehouse’s personal and musical moment of destiny, the moment of almost diabolic inspiration and autobiography and automythology which triggered her supernova of fame. The idea of defiantly not going into rehab challenged a celeb-pap industry which always slavered spitefully over famous people getting punished for their gilded lives by being unhappy. But Winehouse’s attack on the hypocrisy of the whole business, and also the song’s personal ambiguity and complexity, were misunderstood. Her USP became not going into rehab, and being devoted to excess. She became part of the narrative, the Klieg light of celebrity could blind anyone and her mercurial, addictive personality responded badly.
It is an overwhelming story, and despite everyone knowing the ending, it is as gripping as a thriller: Kapadia has fashioned and shaped it with masterly flair.