"The more people see of me the more they'll realise that all I am good for is making music." Amy Winehouse
This documentary is a fascinating mechanism. It often feels like an invasion of privacy. Kapadia is allowed access to an embarrassment of footage. Winehouse and friends captured heaps before the media got stuck in. It is as if Amy sensed that a telling of her story would need her own footage.
In the intimacy of home movies and friends' videos we meet the diminutive London teen with attitude in spades, an arresting understanding of jazz phrasing, and a winsome, no nonsense realness. The story of a youngster excited at the prospect of leaving home to skin-up and write songs all day.
No airs, no graces, and a deep certainty that fame was not for her. She indicated on more than one occasion that fame would make her crazy. The final montage of a glowing, pre-Back to Black Winehouse suggests Cautionary Tale.
To footage and voice-over interviews Kapadia adds helicopter shots of the Thames at dusk or dawn. He adds bird's eye shots rising and falling to East Finchley, Camden Town and Primrose Hill. The allusion is one of having little say in where you find yourself; angels and fallen aliens. It makes the Winehouse story a London story. It feels epic at times, Kitchen Sink at others. It is an epic Kitchen Sink story.
When her fame comes, airs and graces do not. The Winehouse portrayed here could only be herself. By the time the world's cameras rounded on her she had only ever been authentic, intimate and real with her own cameras and those of her friends. This is the blood that the avaricious media would scent and hound. The paparazzi are depicted virally: Elton John's Marilyn, Earl Spencer's Diana Spencer. The omnipresent pursuit of the paps traumatizes. The implication is that they kill.
The Winehouse ascent occurs in the film's grainier first act. Grainy because it relies on home footage and photographs, and Kapadia shoots a grey London, and grey British motorways, as Winehouse slogs. Her success is enjoyable at first; her guilelessness makes it. The second act is disturbing. The sunlight- in the footage- becomes more frequent with the arrival of a fun loving baritone. He enthralls Winehouse. The details of the relationship evoke hallmarks of dark romance.
It sets up the third act in which the diffident diva unravels as her peers and the media flay her. People close to her come to blows. We hear the interviews of her oldest friends. We see footage of those attached to brand Winehouse. Intimates make ill-judged decisions. The two approaches don't quarrel, but they are sequenced to clash. When the artist inhabits her own prophesied madness the film is unflinching. You might want to look away, but Kapadia will not.
Historians know their argument. They do their research; back it up. The story Kapadia tells is a synthesis of fascinating materials. How would Winehouse feel about the film? In it she visits her incarcerated husband and arrives to a swarm of paps at the jail gate. She stands, quietly astounded, frozen, hopeless in the glare. The film screams that Winehouse had suffered a dozen cameras too many. Kapadia's becomes another.
You can't get to know a complex young woman in two hours. Fans can presume to know an artist. In fact, we know what we have heard, read, seen, and then synthesized into another version. There are many Amy Winehouse stories to be told. Kapadia's is a compelling one.
Accomplished and Unsettling. DM