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Amy may initially seem unappealing. Another exposé of a star’s demise, another adventure into the dark, grimy tabloids. But this documentary of Amy Winehouse, directed by Asif Kapadia, is not so simple. Like Kapadia’s previous work, Senna, the film is interested in a talented, intriguing character, but seeks to recover the person who lay behind the blaring paparazzi onslaught, the artist who disappeared into the lights. It creates a more complete picture of an artist, and so it is more complicated and painful. From the beginning, Kapadia uses a huge amount of home video footage from family, friends and colleagues, and interviews them extensively. But the interviewees remain behind the images, creating an uninterrupted intimacy with Amy. You can’t help but warm to her brightness and humour, and the certain shyness and charisma which can often coincide in an artist. The film is particularly good at showing Amy’s early performances in small clubs, where there’s warmth and joy in her musicality, an emotional force in the voice linked to a deep affinity of jazz. There, in her demeanour, you can see what her pianist recounts—that she had a pure relationship to music, an emotional relationship, that she needed it like it was a person.
It seems as if there are two halves of the film, lightness preceding a descent. Though there are signs of depression and escapism early on, Amy’s spark is still there. But as the film continues, it becomes very dark. When Back to Black explodes, cocaine and heroin addiction take over and the fame machine gets so loud it drowns out the music. Simultaneously, there is the enveloping but destructive love between Amy and her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil. Kapadia provides real footage of the paparazzi hunt; the constant burst of jarring lights is overwhelming. It’s a strange and unnerving reality, and the audience feels involved in the madness. Painfully, Amy becomes physically smaller in front of us. The film brings you close to the sadness, the addiction, the unwanted fame of her later years—a chaotic, relentless spiral that turned itself over and over again until it just couldn’t turn anymore.
Regardless of whether you are a fan of Amy Winehouse or not, Amy a humane, sorrowful portrait. Kapadia is interested in knowing his subject in the most authentic way and revealing her to his audience. In this way the film grasps you, and shocks you, making you feel keenly for someone you never knew.