Watching the documentary Amy *****, about the short but stellar life of singer Amy Winehouse, you get the sense of a Jewish tragedy unfolding before your eyes.
As with the most potent of tragedies – from the Greek heroines, through Shakespeare’s classics, Racine’s dramas, through Ibsen to Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller – the momentum, the fate, is ineluctable. The protagonist, succumbing to her flaws, heads towards her end and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
I wanted to reach into the screen and stop it all. But what could you or I have done? Give out hugs, advice, warnings, counsel? We are powerless yet also, in our role as voyeur, made complicit in the tragedy, just as we were when reading the papers at the time and gawping at the horrific images of a lost and troubled girl.
Since the film’s debut at Cannes in May, Asif Kapadia’s film has been the subject of much acclaim but no little controversy. No truly Jewish film should be without its ‘broigus’ (family feud) and the topic of Amy Winehouse, who died almost exactly four years ago, in July 2011, at the age of 27, seems to have touched everyone, not just her still grief-stricken family and friends.
What’s extraordinary about Amy the documentary is that for all the over 100 interviews Kapadia conducted in researching the film and the 2,000+ hours of footage assembled, he doesn’t use the traditional “talking head” format. Instead, voices float in and out and it creates a sort of biopic, but using real-life footage and archive. Kapadia employed a similar technique on his BAFTA-winning Senna, and has thus pioneered a genre of bio-doc, creating the sort of portrait that cinema audiences have clearly loved, and which has boosted the documentary sector no end.
Of course, there are inherent dangers in editing the evidence together like this, and it’s not just traditionalists who might object. The director has shaped this “truth” into his own perception of it, to tell the story how he, after intense months of scrutiny, sees it and, of course, this vision might not chime with everyone’s. Already, Amy’s father Mitch has very publicly taken issue with the film which, admittedly, doesn’t cast him in the best of lights. Indeed, the taxi-driving Dad comes across as a self-centred buffoon whose undoubted love for his daughter is mis-directed and, if I might say, seems to be all about him.
From the film, one certainly gets the impression there’s a general blame game going on. I’m not sure there are answers, although there are plenty of questions, and audiences will make their own opinions and cast their own villains (in particular Mitch and the feckless druggie with whom Amy fell ruinously in love, Blake Fielder Civil). But there is anger, guilt and frustration mixed in, too.
The film is probably even more heartbreaking than you imagine. Part of that power comes from it not only being a biographical re-appraisal, but also a musical re-appreciation. You realise, in merely a couple of albums – Frank and Back to Black – just how good this talent was, a north London, world-class jazz diva the like of which the Anglo-Jewish community has never had before. She’s lost to us all now.
I’m not sure we cherished her enough collectively at the time. She was a proud Jew, wearing a Star of David around the world. Yet did we turn, if not our backs, but our noses up when she went off the rails with the drink and drugs? Who honestly didn’t think somewhere in the back of their mind: if she’d just go with a nice Jewish boy, all this mishigas wouldn’t have happened?
One of the film’s ‘stars’ is Amy’s first manager Nick Shymansky, a very nice Jewish boy who is, I think, in love with Amy, feelings which are unrequited at every turn. This adds another tragic dimension, but it simply wasn’t the part Amy wanted for herself.
As we all know, she said No, No, No. The film shows that Amy was, instinctively, a rebel and her actions suggest she wanted to get out of the suburban cosiness of Southgate and East Finchley, seeking out the edgier waters of Camden. It was then that she became a fixture on the London streets and in the papers, emblematic of certain time and period in London’s storied, pop-cultural history.
As the film’s editor Chris King recalled to me poignantly last week at a special preview of Amy: “You’d be out in Camden or in Soho and in the distance, down the street, you would vaguely hear and see the glow of flashbulbs, you’d feel a jolt of noise and energy, and that was her, that was Amy, surrounded and leaving an imprint in the air wherever she went.”
Certainly, the film conveys the paparazzi’s hounding, as well as Amy’s own sense of drama in front of the cameras – one particular moment struck me, when she went to visit Blake in jail and played the tragedienne for all it was worth.
Amid all the blame, most seem reluctant to blame Amy herself for any of this. So perhaps the real stroke of genius, the real revelation, in the documentary is the use of Amy’s handwritten lyrics, which look like the jottings of a little girl, with heart-shapes dotting the i s, but which contain wit, poetry and startling emotional wisdom, and which also tell a remarkably painful story of doomed love in the 21st century.
Tony Bennett, with whom Amy duetted, says he believes she was up there with the jazz greats such as Billie Holliday and Dinah Washington, and examining the lyrics for the first time in any great detail, as this film permits, certainly reveals a balladeer of exceptional depth.
While sadness is the abiding sentiment after the ineluctable tragic spiral, it would be an awful misinterpretation of the film to focus on the pain, because there is great inspiration here too, using Amy’s own words, own lyrics, Amy’s self and, of course, her music.
For me, Tears Dry on Their Own is her masterpiece song, though I understand those who prefer Love Is A Losing Game, or that acoustic version of Valerie that plays out over the closing credits.
As Asif Kapadia says in his interview with me on our podcast page, you can’t really see any actress playing Amy Winehouse, nor do you need one when you have so much of the real thing to observe.
However, I can see Amy as a stage musical one day, a tragic yet uplifting piece, schmaltzy and funny just as she was, with these fabulous songs re-arranged and re-interpreted by different characters, incorporating big dance numbers and sad, solo ballads – songs that will be elevated to show tunes and become enduring standards, just like Amy’s heroines used to sing…
Listen to my interview with Asif Kapadia by clicking here.