Asif Kapadia’s (Senna, 2010) film documents the heart breaking story of Amy Winehouse, a young woman with an old jazz soul, lost in the contemporary purgatory of social media and celebrity, forever lit by the strobe flashes of paparazzi cameras.
Amy died in 2011, her talent lost to alcohol abuse and bulimia. She was only 27.
The Good Die Young
It seems like naturally talented folks die young, as if the cult of celebrity needs sacrifices. Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and now Amy Winehouse share the unfortunate legacy of joining the ‘club.’ A media construct, a grouping of famous dead 27 year olds, sold to aspiring teens who see success as a bright flare, a flash that burns out quickly.
They don’t live well, our pop culture heroes. Their lives are fast, squashed into a few short years, full of frenetic touring, high expectations, and abject loneliness. We dissect and disseminate their life choices when they’re alive, and then we mourn them when they’re gone. We take all we can from them – their creativity, their exuberance, and their naivety.
We promise our young stars the world; we don’t tell them the price they’ll have to pay for it.
Amy Winehouse wrote her own songs, and she mined her life experiences for the lyrics. Her sadness was in many ways our collective gain, and we bought into the myth happily. For Amy to create the music we loved, she had to suffer and so we let it happen.
Songs of Heart Break
Winehouse’s creativity is inextricably tied to the heart break and abuse she suffered in her short life. Kapadia subtly reminds us of this by subtitling her lyrics on screen. He provides us with context in the form of opinions from family, friends, and colleagues, and then we see those thoughts written and used by Amy in her songs.
Amy used her artistic output as a form of therapy, but we never truly listened to what she was saying. She was a woman in free fall, who had to grow up too quickly, and live her life much too fast.
It’s not a surprising story. Perhaps it’s because it’s an image that’s sold to us. We expect our artists to die young, we don’t want them to become tainted by life, or for them to become watered down. Their lives should cost them – otherwise it’s not fair. They get wealth, opulence, and happiness. What do we get?
Selling Her Voice
What struck me about Amy was seeing just how lost and waif like she became as her fame grew. She was led by others, and her sense of self was squandered by the need to market and sell her voice. She became lost in the noise; to the whirlwind of superstardom. It’s not an easy life, and it’s not one that many people could handle or even survive.
Kapadia’s film follows a similar format to Brett Morgen’s Montage of Heck. Both films attempt to show the ‘true’ story behind the art by using archival footage, and the voice and music of their respective stars. It’s an approach that worked well on Morgen’s film thanks to the intimate tapes and journal entries Cobain recorded. But Amy is far more reflective of our media saturated contemporary era.
There’s loads of footage of her performing, shots of her as a young child, and plenty of images collated throughout her life. Her experiences were well documented so Amy has a real sense of voracity. It doesn’t feel like a manufactured narrative. It feels like Amy Winehouse lived a life that was documented to be easily distilled into one slickly produced documentary.
Keeping Amy at Arms Length
Amy’s private life blurred into her public one leaving little to the imagination. But for all of the footage used, it still seems like Winehouse is held at arms length. It doesn’t feel like we get any closer to her than we have done before. Perhaps because she has always existed in the public sphere, there’s little to add to her narrative.
That’s the saddest part of the story. Amy is gone, and her story ended. There’s a sense of finality, the knowledge that we can only travel so far with our retrospective gaze, that there’s a limit to what can be said about her.
There are some issues with the documentary. There’s a dark side to the fame and fortune she achieved, and Kapadia doesn’t shy away from showing late night drunken phone calls, or sharing troubling stories of her drug abuse. Amy Winehouse is exposed entirely in the film, and nothing is left to the imagination.
She fell apart in the media spotlight, and now we’re documenting it all over again with a succinct documentary portrait of her life. But should we? Amy Winehouse died only four years ago, and it’s still a fresh wound for her friends and family.
The agenda of Kapadia’s film seems to be that fame and celebrity exacerbated her problems with drink and bulimia. But his film also adds to that legacy, it’s a mass media tract about a mass media figure. This further distances us from the woman at the heart of it all.
It seems ironic to watch a montage of paparazzi shots of Amy Winehouse that plays out to an emotive soundtrack. Even with Kapadia’s didactic subtext: ‘We killed her because we all wanted a piece of her.’ Because we’re doing it all over again, by watching a woman collapse and suffer from an unrelenting media barrage.
She was paraded in front of the music industry, celebrated for her voice, but we never truly helped her. Amy performed at the Mercury Awards, she won accolades, and she had to feed the beast even though it was clearly killing her. When viewed in retrospect it seems so clearly wrong.
The Lows of Addiction
Perhaps though that’s what Asif Kapadia’s film does well. It juxtaposes the gloss of high society, with the painful lows of addiction. It reminds us that our instinct is to care for people who are suffering, and not simply because of their art.
Amy imparts compassion, and it leaves us wishing that we could’ve changed something before it was too late. But we all thrive on stories, the media feeds them to us everyday, and it was easy for us all to watch Amy fall apart, and judge her decisions. We joked about it and it distanced us from her suffering.
Kapadia doesn’t let us have that luxury. His film is a constant close up of a person in distress, and it’s painful to watch. Yet we did. For years we let her suffer, twisting in the media’s glare, and we danced along. Her songs meant something to us, but she didn’t.
We made her life lonely by dissecting and disseminating her on nightly news cycles. We created a world that she couldn’t escape from and it isn’t a surprise that she kicked back.
Is Amy a Cash In?
At times Amy feels like a cash in of sorts. It’s an emotive documentary, sure, but once more it puts her life under the microscope. It plays drunk phone calls, it reiterates the narrative we were given to begin with of the tortured artist, the icon, the legend, the woman who joined the ‘club.’
And it makes me think that there must be better ways to tell these stories. We must be able to craft narratives that promote dignity, respect, and hopefulness. It’s easy to tell a sad story about a pop singer who died too young, it’s harder to tell that same story with gentleness and care.
But John Ridley did it with the Jimi Hendrix film All Is By My Side. He focussed on one year of the guitarist’s life, in the moments right before he became famous. It’s not a definitive story, but it’s a narrative that celebrates the music, and the skill of Hendrix’s output. It’s not didactic, there’s no finger pointing, instead it’s a film full of potential (of course, it’s overshadowed by our knowledge of what happens next).
Too Much, Too Soon?
Amy draws to a close with footage of her body being wheeled from her London apartment. That seems like too much, like we should pull back because that’s not a moment that belongs to us. Montage of Heck stopped short of Cobain’s death, so why does Kapadia include such emotive imagery?
Is it necessary?
Perhaps Kapadia should’ve taken inspiration from Ridley’s film and ended with Winehouse doing what she did best – singing, playing guitar, and creating art. That’s what her legacy should be. Some things don’t need to be stated. Her dead body isn’t ours to gawk over.
A Familiar Story
Sadly Amy’s narrative is one that we already know. She lived her life in public, and now her death is sold too. When she was alive we ignored the worst aspects of her life because she made beautiful things, but now we pour over all of the ugliness and discuss what we could’ve done differently.
Is it always about us? Is it ever about her?
Amy is a touching documentary, one that leaves us with the sense that we should’ve done better. Unfortunately, we can’t change the past and that’s where Amy Winehouse now belongs. Her legacy felt more strongly through what we’ve lost, than what she left behind.