A heartbreaking indictment of almost everyone in or around Amy Winehouse’s life, from family and friends who enabled (or encouraged) her in her addictions, to those who viewed her downward spiral as spectacle, and to the many of the associates in the music industry that pushed much harder for the bottom line than they did for Amy’s physical and mental well being. Asif Kapadia’s documentary is composed almost entirely of three forms of footage: recordings of live performances, invasive paparazzi footage, and most of all a variety of home videos captured by various people in Winehouse’s life.
These unprofessional videos were filmed often by the people in her life who truly cared about her as a person and not as a resource, but as the film moves into its second half those holding the camera are often the ones invading and exploiting Winehouse’s life, often standing at a distance held back by Amy’s personal bodyguards, or pressed up to the window of the car she has narrowly squeezed into. Winehouse’s father had a camera crew with them on a family vacation. Kapadia chops up the paparazzi sequences, making the effect even more disorienting and aggressive than the shaky handheld footage already is, and makes the aesthetic choice to accentuate the camera flashes, until all we see through the constant flashes of white filling the screen are brief static images of Winehouse, at a distance from the cameraman, unknowable. These images at a distance are juxtaposed with the ones early in the film; those filmed by people in the immediate space with Amy, exchanging the camera with her as one films the other playing pool in the back room of a bar, or attempting to coax out a smile from Amy, annoyed, snoozing in the back of the car. These videos reveal a young artist – poet, singer – too vulnerable and real for the fame and exploitation she is thrust into.
Amy is less a portrait of Winehouse and more an argument for her as a person and not a spectacle. Kapadia celebrates her as an artist by displaying her personal lyrics on screen as she performs, and often freezes the frame on her face looking into the camera. A counter argument could be made that Amy itself is a work of hypocrisy, standing as one last invasion into the life of an artist perpetually invaded and exploited and ignored for the bottom line, but Kapadia’s documentary avoids this, utilizing footage and events that helped drive her towards her death, that dehumanized her, and repurposing them into an attempt to reconstruct her as a human being.