I met Amy Winehouse a few times, before she became how most people remember her – which, let’s be honest, wasn’t pretty. She swore like a docker, laughed like a drain, and smoked like a chimney. She and I shared a take-no-shit attitude. But she also sang like nothing else I’d ever heard. This clearly wasn’t a talent honed at stage school (she did go for a few years but got expelled) or on Pop Idol. This was raw, unfettered talent; she didn’t need anything else, and in fact lamented the idea of being famous. But famous she did become, and it’s no great leap to imagine that it was this that contributed the most to her downfall. So, while I can’t claim to be anywhere near an expert on Amy, I did know something of the person she was before the drink and drugs took hold, and it’s not how she was portrayed in Heat and the tabloids. It was with this filter (and admitted bias) that I watched Asif Kapadia’s documentary, which doesn’t strive to paint a pretty picture of Amy but instead seeks to redress the balance of her public persona, distorted by endless paparazzi pictures, rehab visits, abortive concerts and so on.
And it does this superbly. We follow Amy chronologically through her life, starting at about 14. The digital cameras which were to plague her in later life were only just in their infancy at that time, and she and her friends are constantly talking to us in a video diary – just normal teenagers showing off in front of the camera (although Amy quickly sets herself apart within a group rendition of Happy Birthday). The film chronicles her first attempts at singing and song writing and swiftly moves on to her first public performances, on tiny stages at jazz clubs. You get the feeling that she is happy at this point and would prefer never to move on – her mannerisms when being compared to Dido during an interview are nothing short of hilarious. We learn about the people and observations which led her to create her début album, Frank. More than once she prophetically tells us that being famous would send her mad as she wouldn’t know how to handle it.
If this film is a record, then the B-side starts with Blake Fielder, who has been vilified in the press for introducing Amy to hard drugs. It’s true there’s a sea change in the mood of the film when he comes into her life, but what is made abundantly clear is that she was never particularly stable to begin with, and was already battling her own demons by this time. In fact, everyone is treated even-handedly – the format of the film (with no talking heads, just commentary) allows everyone to have their say. Even Mitch Winehouse, who has disowned the project after seeing the film, has plenty of opportunity to make his point: his point being that, even after Amy’s friends and manager begged her to go to rehab after splitting with Fielder the first time, he was famously of the opinion she didn’t need to. You’re left wondering what would have happened if, as her then-manager puts it in the film, she had been able to get professional help before the world’s media came calling. You’re also left wondering if she could ever have created an album like Back to Black – the album that catapulted her to global fame – without staring into that abyss. She was no innocent bystander in her own story.
We all know what came afterwards. By this time, Amy’s voice is gradually fading away from the film, and the story is taken over aurally by those on the inside, and visually by the cameras which hunted her down constantly wherever she went. As someone who doesn’t read Heat or the Daily Mail, this part of the film made for frankly uncomfortable viewing, as the ever-more voyeuristic cameras intrude more and more into her life. Her attempts at rehab and her relationship with Fielder are chronicled (and he is able to put across his perspective), and the whole situation spirals into a horribly predictable outcome. The difference between the girl we saw excitably clowning around in a car on the way to Birmingham to “sing some songs” and the woman who stumbles on stage in Serbia and mumbles through them instead is truly heartbreaking. Even worse is, mere months before her death, she sings a duet with Tony Bennett (one of her heroes) and she looks wonderfully healthy. But the girl inside we saw before has all but disappeared, leaving her an apologetic shell – I don’t think she would have been as deferential to Bennett as she was before life overwhelmed her.
Should you see it even if you weren’t a fan? I would say yes, because the chances are you have never seen this side of Amy Winehouse. You have probably never thought about her lyrics as much as you will when they’re floating on the screen. And maybe, just maybe, this film will stay with you when you leave, and you will realise we are a poorer world without her talent. And her filthy laugh.