Amy (2015)

07/15/2015  By  Martin R. Schneider     No comments

A story is always a little different when you know the ending.

The experience is different as an audience member; you start assessing the storytelling a little more, trying to pick up on clues and seeing if you can find components that you missed before. The first time a person hears a story, they want to know how it ends. The second time, they want to know how it gets to the ending. This is why watching Amy for the first time feels a lot like watching The Sixth Sense trying to see how it hints that Bruce Willis is a ghost, or reviewing old Judas Priest lyrics for clues regarding Rob Halford’s sexuality. It’s basically impossible to ignore that the film has to end in Amy Winehouse’s 2011 death from lethal intoxication, but the film feels oddly obsessed with it, almost teasing the viewer with how progressively bad Winehouse’s life gets with each moment. It might be a step too far to call the film wholly exploitative, but it definitely feels unfair for a film billing itself as a look into an artist’s entire life to become so fixated on their death.

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The film also makes the ridiculous assertion that Amy Winehouse was once a very blurry fourteen-year old.

Director Asif Kapadia tells the story of Amy’s rise to stardom starting from her first songwriting efforts as a teenager under the guidance of then-manager Nick Shymansky. Eschewing the “talking heads” format of most documentaries, Kapadia has access to enough archival footage that we rarely see anything that isn’t Amy performing, recording, or in her private life. The interviews are entirely voice-over, with captions on the screen telling the audience who is speaking. The captions tell small subtle stories in themselves, as people’s titles slightly shift in relation to where they are in Amy’s life. One interview subject’s description may go from “manager” to “former manager”, while another goes from “promoter” to “manager.” This is one of several storytelling touches that makes the film so compelling.

Another interesting, if formulaic, storytelling technique Kapadia employs is the juxtaposition of lyrics used as mile-markers in Amy’s story. People will describe an event or change in Amy’s life, and this will be immediately followed by footage of her writing or performing the song which was written to correlate with that event, with the key lyrics gracing the screen like a sing-along. This does create a richer and deeper sense of Amy Winehouse as an artist, but it also contributes heavily to the film’s overall feel of playing “Armchair Psychologist.” It’s more like a fan taking an educated guess at what each song is about based on context clues, then passing that off as fact when the artist isn’t around to say otherwise. Except of course, when you learn that Winehouse’s daddy really did tell her she was fine and didn’t need to go to rehab. That particular lyric is pretty transparent.

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“Okay guys, say “Enablers’ on three, ready? 1…2…3….” “ENABLERS!”

For most casual music fans, all they know about Amy Winehouse going into this film is her trouble with addiction and body issues, and the fact that Back to Black is a phenomenal pop album through and through. Walking out of the film, it’s really unlikely that you’ll feel like you know any more than that. Almost no one wants to talk about Amy’s personality, all anyone discusses is her vices and her astonishing musicianship. Notable exceptions to this rule include Questlove, Mos Def, and Amy’s childhood best friend. In early interview footage, Amy tells a reporter self-deprecatingly “I think that the closer people get to me, they’ll learn that the only thing I’m good for is writing music.” You automatically feel bad for Amy at this point, but as the film progresses, it appears that many people, Kapadia included, seem to believe this is true. Maybe it actually is. Maybe there’s not much to Amy Winehouse beyond her addictions and her talent, but it seems like it’s the documentarian’s job to cover that up, not call attention to it.

The film also takes aim at celebrity culture and media obsession, stopping just short of blaming Amy’s death on the paparazzi. (There are actually a number of things the film comes close to pinning her death on, including her father and ex-husband.) It admonishes tabloids and reporters for their constant harassment of Amy, and for mocking her at her worst. In this regard, it may definitely have a point worth pursuing, but it’s a little cheapened by the fact that at least a third of the film’s footage is tabloid archives, including intimate moments with family and lovers. It comes across crass to be shunning these images yet at the same time using them for personal gain. It’s not unlike websites which publish leaked nude photos alongside articles attacking the people that leaked them.

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Amy herself is surprised by this response.

Amy is a compelling, interesting, and well-told story with a handful of pieces that don’t sit quite right.

It calls into question what responsibilities a documentary filmmaker has to their subject, if there are any at all. When you’re dealing with an actual human being, are you obligated to try to make them as three-dimensional as possible out of respect? Maybe, maybe not, but it is still frustrating that Amy the movie seems more concerned with what Amy was and how she got that way, rather than give us a closer look at who she was. Despite this, there are still moments where it’s difficult not to fall a little in love with her, like watching her eyes light up like a child on Christmas when she hears Tony Bennett say her name. These are the best, most human moments of the film, and more of them and less patronizing paintings of a Norm-Jean-who-can’t-handle-stardom would have turned a pretty good film into an amazing one.

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Judged as an Extended Episode of Behind The Music
Documentary Storytelling
Questionable Reverence for the Subject
Even More Questionable Attacks on Celebrity Culture
Plenty of Footage of the Recording of Back To Black

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About Martin R. Schneider

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Martin Schneider has opinions about a lot of things, and sometimes he writes them down. But he tries not to be a douchebag about it, though.

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