Film Review: The Amy Winehouse Documentary — Hagiography in the Age of Reality TV

Amy Winehouse’s death was certainly a tragedy, but not one that moves us to pity and terror in its retelling as a morality tale spun from home movies.

Amy, directed by Asif Kapadia. At Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and other movie houses around New England.

A scene from "Amy," a documentary about the life of Amy Winehouse.

A scene from “Amy,” a documentary about the life of the late Amy Winehouse.

By Anthony Wallace

Last Friday, Arts Fuse editor-in-chief Bill Marx and I went to see Asif Kapadia’s celebrated new documentary of Amy Winehouse, Amy, at the Kendall Square Cinema, released, presumably, to coincide with the fourth anniversary of her death on July 23rd. When I walked into the theater my first question was why this film had been made, and walking out I did have an answer, but not a very satisfying one: it’s a fan film. That shouldn’t surprise anybody since the film was commissioned by Amy’s record label. In a glowing New York Times review on July 2 (the newspaper’s second review of the film within four days), Manohla Dargis writes that “Ms. Winehouse’s label, Universal Music UK, commissioned the movie and gave Mr. Kapadia full creative control, one reason that it’s spikier, tougher and more interesting than the usual official biographies-hagiographies.”

I wonder if Ms. Dargis and I watched the same film. What I saw was the all-too-predictable finger-pointing at the principal players (except for the record company), with Amy herself cast in the best possible light: talented, high-spirited, and relentlessly victimized by both inner and outer demons. It’s the familiar story of genius destroyed and youthful artistic promise vanquished by fame, drugs and alcohol, mental illness, the media, various hangers-on—including Amy’s father, Mitchell Winehouse, who has condemned the film as unfair and inaccurate. The film works through a facile morality that the film critics seem to adore (no, I’m not a film critic, although I did watch a film and am now criticizing it), with the media served up as the ultimate villain. Aren’t we getting just a little tired of the media taking the moral high ground against itself?

I’ve sifted through several wildly enthusiastic reviews and an NPR interview with Mr. Kapadia, and I find many points worth responding to, and disagreeing with. In a June 29 NYT review, Joe Coscarellijune writes in his headline that “Amy Winehouse Documentary Lets Nobody Off the Hook” and that “For Mr. Shymansky [Amy’s first manager, who dropped her early on as a form of tough love], Amy represented a chance to right the course of Ms. Winehouse’s historical standing, while being definitive enough to ‘allow her legacy to breathe,’ he said.”

I’ll set my shovel down on that spot and dig a little. The problem with the film — or, I should say, a big problem that contains other smaller, related problems — is that Kapadia does almost nothing to investigate Amy’s historical standing, what her influence has been, and what her legacy might be.

The fact is that Amy Winehouse made two records in her short and fascinatingly tragic life, the first of which she was not entirely satisfied with (Frank, 2003), the second of which, Back to Black (2006), in my view shows her coming into her own as an artist, but not as a jazz artist (more about that in a bit). That record, I believe, is a classic of hip-hop inflected R&B and soul, sampling many influences of the ’60s and ’70s both in the music and in the look Amy developed around that time and that has become iconic: kooky retro frou-frou outfits and in-your-face tattoos, Ronnie Spector beehive hairdo and Cleopatra makeup, the occasional Barbra Streisand eye-crossing — she was the postmodern blender on wheels, with a bitching set of pipes. That in itself is fascinating to me — how an artist becomes an artist, including the persona Amy created to perform the music — but apparently it is not so interesting to Kapadia. From first to last Amy Winehouse was in constant, relentless flux, inventing and reinventing both herself and her music. She worked hard, she was passionate about her music and serious about the contribution she was trying to make, and she did arrive at a place well worth looking at. We see this process of invention and discovery on the screen, in film footage both on- and off-stage, but it is never really commented on or contextualized as such. And this is a documentary that contains virtually no exposition.

Amy had a strong jazz foundation (we never learn the specifics of that crucial piece of information), and she was a natural improviser who never sang a song exactly the same way twice. Back to Black is an excellent album, but I prefer the more vibrant live arrangements with her large and spot-on touring band. None of those musicians was interviewed, and it would have been interesting to learn how those complicated and truly suave arrangements came about. My own opinion is that the music Amy performed and that was filmed roughly between 2006 and 2008 was the best and most original music she ever made — the work on which her “legacy” stands. Seeing Amy is almost as important as hearing Amy — a point on which I’m sure Mr. Kapadia and I would agree — and I YouTube her more than I listen to her on my iPod.

Some of the YouTube videos from that period really pop, showing Amy at her best and also, sadly, as time rushed by, at her worst. Live at Glastonbury 2007 and 2008 are well worth watching. Over the course of two hours one can see the double trajectory of her development both as artist and addict. Both impulses got stronger as she moved into her peak creative years, and the Glastonbury videos document the warring of these powerful forces in real time:

Kapadia’s film does capture very well the double movement toward creation and destruction that is the agon of this tragedy, but he gives us no signposts, makes no discriminations. It all just runs together, and it is up to us to sort it out and come to our own conclusions. This seems not entirely fair to viewers unfamiliar with Amy Winehouse and her music, and seems to me a shirking of the documentary filmmaker’s obligation to his subject as well as to his audience. Kapadia’s approach is also more than a little disingenuous, since he is in complete control of what we see — and what we don’t see—frame by frame. I suppose the premise here is that we should trust him and can trust him because he was given “complete artistic control” — which he is, in a way, passing on to us.

Kapadia’s film is fatuous in the sense that it takes at face value and asks us to take at face value everything that is presented — at face value — with the assumption that what we see speaks very clearly for itself.

It does not.

Or sometimes it does, but so what?

Or sometimes it does but not accurately, and not only as Mitch Winehouse is using that word. For example, Tony Bennett, wrapped in the mantle of jazz giant and national treasure, makes a pronouncement in the film as well as in this interview: “Of all the contemporary artists I’ve worked with, she has the most natural jazz voice. Her phrasing and tone – she’s got it.”

So that’s it, Tony Bennett says it, it’s true. But it isn’t true that a person who can do a smoking hot impersonation of Sarah Vaughn is a consummate jazz artist by virtue of that ability, or that such a voice is in any sense “natural” –though this video of Amy and Tony is surely compelling.

Amy built on a strong jazz foundation to create some truly original work in Back to Black and the subsequent live performances, but she never became a first-class jazz vocalist. But how and from where did she get that foundation, and why did she (most importantly) move from it to find her voice in other forms of American black music? I would like to know how Amy got the sophisticated harmonic vocabulary with which she wrote her first songs, which are sort of like neo jazz standards — Sarah Vaughn inflected with hip-hop. You don’t learn chord changes like that by reading the Bob Dylan songbook. Did Amy come into the world with an intuitive appreciation of the m7b5 chord?

The film is a blue streak from early to middle to late Winehouse, and one of the most troubling of its assumptions is that there is no need to make aesthetic discriminations because all the music is great, except when she is so impaired that it’s not: one characteristic that surely makes Amy a fan film. I would have liked more footage from Glastonbury and other key performances, as well as analysis of her development as an artist and sustained focus on the magic moment when she finally arrived at the place all artists aspire to — when they’ve synthesized all their influences and are completely and freely themselves.

Amy’s struggle for artistic excellence is present in the film, but blurred by a lack of focus and overshadowed by the fan magazine story — including some hand-wringing from her high school girlfriends. Over the course of two hours, Amy Winehouse moves in a mostly straight line toward her own destruction while everyone watches and, in Kapadia’s view, contributes. Some are sad about it, some think it’s funny, the way so many people thought “Rehab” was funny. Some people knew and some people didn’t know and some people, like Amy’s father, perhaps, knew to some extent but didn’t grasp the enormity of the problem. Or maybe they just couldn’t do much about it, even though it now seems that they could have done some things better and not done other things at all — the usual hindsight. Kapadia emphasizes the foreshadowing in Amy’s bulimia, which started when she was a teenager and told her parents about this “great new diet.” Both parents brushed it off as a phase she was going through. That’s not so unusual — clueless parents, I mean.

Mitch Winehouse looks even worse later in the film, traveling with his daughter to St. Lucia to help her clean up and then providing her with an open bar. He also brings along a film crew and asks Amy to pose for pictures with tourists. He seems to be a guy who truly didn’t get it, and became, perhaps, a hanger-on — might be one to this very day — but he certainly didn’t kill his daughter; and neither did Blake Fielder-Civil, the drug addict boyfriend and husband who took most of the blame when Amy was alive; or her second manager, who kept her touring; or the media, which wouldn’t let her alone. That’s a smelly kettle of fish and chips, to be sure, but Amy killed Amy, with drugs and alcohol, with bulimia, with untreated mental illness, with a small, frail body and a damaged heart that simply couldn’t take it anymore. Kapadia’s film shows us all that while trying to preserve the sanctity of its subject. I suppose that’s hagiography in the age of Reality TV.

Amy’s death was certainly a tragedy, but not one that moves us to pity and terror in its retelling as a morality tale spun from home movies. The credits roll to the tune of “Valerie,” one of my favorite of Amy’s later songs,

and one that is collected in a posthumous third album, Lioness: Hidden Treasures, issued in 2011, the year of her death. “Valerie” was a new song in Amy’s repertoire, although one not written by her, but most of the material on the record was recycled. Jon Pareles of the NYT commented that the album “ekes out all it can from the archives” and found it to be “just the scraps of what might have been.”

After the film, Bill and I walked across the courtyard for a bite to eat at The Friendly Toast, and it turned out that our waitress, Elizabeth Meyers, is an Amy Winehouse fan. I asked Elizabeth why she thought Amy was so important, and what her most important contribution was, and without hesitation she answered that Amy expressed pain. We agreed about the power of songs like “I Wake Up Alone” and “Tears Dry on Their Own.” We chatted while Elizabeth took our order, and I wanted to continue the conversation, but business in the restaurant picked up and we didn’t get a chance to talk again until the end of the meal, by which time Elizabeth had written down her thoughts on a small slip of paper and handed them to us along with the check:

Amy was an inspiration. Her words to this day give me shivers to my soul. Her rawness, her power, her words and strength continue to touch me, motivate me. Through her words, I’m not alone in heartbreak. Very few people sing pain the way she did. She was daring, she was a strong female role model and continues to affect me. I feel that she lives on through women like myself.

Anthony Wallace‘s collection of short stories The Old Priest won the 2013 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was first reviewed by Roberta Silman in The Arts Fuse. The book went on to become a finalist for the 2014 PEN/Hemingway Award. More on Anthony Wallace and his collection The Old Priest. He has work forthcoming in The Missouri Review and Hotel Amerika.


  1. Bill Marx, Arts Fuse Editor on July 14, 2015 at 4:32 pm

    What I found the most interesting about Amy wasn’t the misguided enthusiasm of the credulous reviewers. In today’s media, the language of hype and criticism are fused at the lip.

    It is what the movie says about the depressingly heightened value of voyeurism in the age of the omnipresent camera. We see Amy Winehouse at all ages; there are pictures and videos of her from cradle to grave. The primal attraction of the documentary comes from seeing her happy … and seeing her sad …. and seeing her broken down. There is no musical analysis, no critical perspective (how could there be, given that the record company bankrolled the project?), not much revelatory information — just pictures, an endless supply of candid visuals. Anyone see any hypocrisy in the media/ critics praising Amy to the skies? The celebrity bio documentaries of the future … giving us what the paparazzi missed.

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