Amy is not a story we haven’t heard before, and I don’t mean that in the sense that Amy Winehouse’s rise in fame and decline in stability is incredibly well-documented. I mean this in the sense that we have seen artists burn out on their celebrity before, and Winehouse is an example of that tragedy in the extreme, where the death of a young artist forces us to step back and look at the psychological trauma that celebrity can inflict upon a person. Amy is a testament to the life of a talented young woman who fell victim to her own fame, and though it isn’t the best documentary of the year, I have a hard time seeing anything else bringing home the prize at the Oscars this year.
Which isn’t to say that Amy isn’t a good film; it very much is, taking material that would have made excellent fodder in a made-for-TV exploitation special and elevating it to a touching tribute to the impact Winehouse made on the musical community. Director Asif Kapadia clearly saw the dangers fraught in presenting this material as respectfully as possible, and therefore used a few tricks to make the story more resonant. First, and most notably, the film has almost no face-cam interviews. The benefit of making a film about Amy Winehouse is that there is a plethora of home movie footage and archived news reports to present a coherent narrative on Winehouse’s life, even without the use of narration.
However, the film does use narration throughout, but in the form of audio recordings with Winehouse’s friends, producers, and fellow artists. In lieu of watching these people cry for their lost friend, we get to see Winehouse through their eyes, with their remembrances matched to potent images on-screen that depict more than the drugged-out caricature the popular media presented Winehouse as in her later years. According to Amy, Winehouse was a goofy, everyday woman with a talented voice that led her to be exploited and for her on-going struggles with substance abuse and bulimia to go largely untreated. The film isn’t so much interested in laying blame on any particular person (though Winehouse’s promoter and her father do not come out looking very good), but it does paint the picture that the compounded struggles of her celebrity status are what pushed Winehouse to her demise.
The Academy, mostly comprised of film celebrities, will likely give Amy the Oscar win for Best Documentary in a landslide, as Hollywood loves stories of tragic youth sacrificed upon the altar of celebrity. Amy is quite a good film, particularly for how lewdly this subject matter could have been presented, but it isn’t quite so novel a documentary as, say, Going Clear. As with any documentary, though, this may just be attributed to my relative ambivalence to the subject matter. If the life of Amy Winehouse is of any interest to you, this might be one to give a shot.