Amy Winehouse lived all her adult life in the 21st century and handheld cameras and phones filmed much of it. There are the girly teenage birthday parties, the holidays in Spain, the shaky shots of her waking up in the back of a car on a road trip with mates. It’s ordinary stuff really – maybe a few more cigarettes and a bit more booze than average, but nothing much that any of us didn’t do as kids.
Except the moment that, at 14, she starts to sing… and that familiar voice is there, fully formed, filling all the space with its fragile frankness, the jazz, the soul and the pain innate rather than learned. Like the teenage Michael Jackson, her singing seems informed by adult emotions and by an adult world that would be both saturated with success, but also slashed by the dread power of celebrity. No wonder the record companies and promoters were goggle-eyed at this tiny funny Jewish girl from North London, who spoke like she had just come out of a bog-standard local comprehensive and sang like she had just come out of a New Orleans nightclub.
Asif Kapadia uses only contemporary film to tell his story of Amy Winehouse, stitching together home movies, backstage material, news clips and concert footage to bring us close to our subject – so close, you half expect to turn round and see her sitting behind you. What emerges is a portrait of a life that provokes feelings of anger, admiration and sorrow – and an uneasiness about our role then, and now. Amy’s troubles – her bulimia, her hedonism and her emotional rollercoaster of a love life – are the engine of her art: crudely put, if you want Amy’s songs (and she did – she really did) then you want Amy too, and all that comes with that.
The music weaves in and out of the narrative, lyrics written on the screen (often in Amy’s own beautifully controlled and rounded hand) – and what the songs say is the same as what the images say. The songs are the woman and the woman is the songs.
If that’s the admiration, the sadness comes from the slow motion car crash that unfolds before you. The life and soul of the party after half a dozen drinks, is unable to stand up after a dozen more; the courage and vivacity that lifted her from East Finchley to global stardom becomes a liability when the absence of an off-switch takes her into some dark places full of false friends; the hideous knowledge that, amongst all those people that loved her, not one loved way in the precise way required to save her, nags at you from start to finish. And the anger – what do you do with the anger? The main villains are the two men she loved with an uncontrollable passion: the father, whom she never stopped trying to please despite his dismally misjudged attempts to balance his needs with hers; and the boyfriend / husband, who fed her voracious appetites for sex, drugs and rock and roll – which, conveniently, were his driving passions too.
Could not this woman who would stare deep into her own soul to write and then sing those songs, not see through these men’s mere veneer of care for her wellbeing? I suspect she could, but she couldn’t stop the worship of them – no off-switch again you see.
But we’re complicit too, not just in wanting the music, not just in laughing along at the late night comics’ gags about Amy’s carousing (I don’t think I’ll ever so much as smile at a cheap gag at a 25 year-old’s expense again), but in our noses being pushed further and further into her life – through the vector of the papparazzi’s lens that tortured her. And, the irony is that we only really come to know just how dangerous the flashlight can be for a woman who needs space, time and love, through those very images that make up the film’s blazing, brutal second half. Its nadir comes with the footage of her dead body, barely covered by a blanket, being carried from her Camden home to a private ambulance – a broken bird that will fly no more. We didn’t need to see that… yet, somehow, we did.