Asif Kapadia’s documentary Amy had its UK premiere on Thursday in Edinburgh.
It’s stunning, if predictably sad and tough to watch in places, as a gifted and beautiful young Jewish girl turns her body into a chemistry set and her mind into mush. We already knew the horror story about Amy Winehouse, but the way that Kapadia presents it is unique and new. The film is built up entirely of existing images, most of which are from YouTube or from people’s private phones or computers (including Winehouse’s.) The images complement the narrative, which is assembled from new interviews with people around Amy; childhood friends, musicians, managers, drug buddies, her father. As such, Kapadia has used the existing technology to create something like a new genre…the oral/citizen style?
One’s mind quickly jumps to compare this story and film with Montage of Heck, the recent Kurt Cobain documentary. That relied to great extent on home movies of Cobain’s childhood and home life, it makes me wonder what a film biography of someone born in the last ten years will look like in the future; that is, someone who is not a digital immigrant, someone whose every moment has been documented on some digital format. As individuals, Winehouse and Cobain had quite different backgrounds; his mum threw him out at the age of nine to let a succession of other relations look after him; she appears to have had a good childhood and adolescence, though it’s frustrating that Kapadia’s film skips the surely fascinating period between childhood (where some nascent gift surely was identified) and the appearance of the late-teenaged prodigy. I think she went to stage school, but that wasn’t mentioned.
Both Cobain and Winehouse had their succubus and incubus drug-buddies though, vile enablers who had an intractable hold. Cobain met and married the awful Courtney Love, Winehouse fell for and married the even more awful Blake Fielder. Happily, the film doesn’t have to spell out the enormity of his evil emptiness, he does that perfectly well in his interviews therein.
The director was present for a Q&A after the movie and it was evident from his personal charm how he was able to gain the trust he needed from the interviewees, many of whom took months and years to get fully involved with the project. He compared the making of Amy to the process behind his previous film Senna – while there were loads of interviews with Ayrton Senna available, Amy had pretty much stopped doing interviews by 2004, hence the need to rely on the interviews with her associates and friends. From this he found that different circles of people were presented with different impressions of her and used these apparent contradictions to build up the picture we see in his film.
Amy has immediately served one of the purposes of art for me; making the viewer curious about everything else. Winehouse’s music pretty much went past me at the time. I need to go and listen properly now. And watch Senna.