Amy (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Amy (2015)

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Director Asif Kepadia assembles years of footage to tell the story of Amy Winehouse in the documentary Amy.

WarmupThroughout Amy I found my thoughts drifting to what may be the growing importance of format for documentaries as we move into the digital age.  Amy Winehouse was just a year older than me and we came of age at a time where it is possible every one of our actions from birth to death could be captured in some way.  Because of this director Asif Kepadia has no shortage of clips to construct Amy, and it does a good job of conveying the story of her rise while hinting at the self-destructive streak which resulted in her death.

But simply conveying information well doesn't automatically translate to a gripping documentary.  Amy is about as straightforward a presentation you can find and little of the information we get over its two-hour runtime could just as easily be gleaned from looking up her music on Youtube while reading Wikipedia.  This isn't inherently bad as even her greatest fans might not have the time to research the basics of her life and are only familiar with her from her music.  But for someone who watches documentaries on a regular basis, tries to keep up on cultural information as much as possible, and who considers the documentaries Montage of Heck and What Happened, Miss Simone? to be two of the best films of the year - Amy comes up short.

The glimpses of the tired-of-it-all Amy Winehouse, the one who needed drugs to deal with the fame, are some of the few illuminating moments in Amy.

The glimpses of the tired-of-it-all Amy Winehouse, the one who needed drugs to deal with the fame, are some of the few illuminating moments in Amy.

Which is why my mind continued to drift to format and presentation instead of content.  Kepadia's style with Amy is not too far from the kind Ken Burns has employed for decades.  Footage of Winehouse's life rolls on while the people who claimed to be close to her offer their experiences with her in the form of narration.  Only instead of Confederate drum lines and photographs we have video of Amy performing in various venues while the voices talk on.  There's little dissection between Amy the girl growing up in a divided home and Amy the superstar with what sparse detail about her early life is presented.

My biggest disappointment in Amy started when I tried drifting along with the film and found the waters shallow.  Amy is a good summary of her life but when particulars come up, such as her tumultuous early romantic relationships and the way her father purportedly pushed her, the time we linger on these details is so brief it becomes hard to form a cohesive idea of just what these people meant to her.  The closest Kepadia comes to illuminating her relationships comes from narration from Winehouse about her grandmother while old footage of her grandmother plays.  The strength and immediate presence of her grandmother in those moments parallels the confidence Winehouse pours out singing throughout the film.

But the much commented-on rocky relationship with her father, Mitchell Winehouse, and others form a mystery Kepadia might have best left untouched.  Outside one key scene footage of her father appears in the film briefly, much like how her boyfriends appear and disappear, and there's much talk about how Mitchell used her.  The most damning scene comes when Winehouse lashes out at her father for bringing a documentary crew on their holiday.  I'd like to say he comes off callous but really we just get Winehouse's words and little in the way of how Mitchell hurt her.

I don't say this to cast doubt on Mitchell's intentions or the way he treated Winehouse as there was some clear trouble between the two.  Instead the lingering emotions and unaddressed depth of these moments is a weakness of Kepadia's work overall.  Other relationships, such as her friendship with Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), and others in her business entourage, emerge and disappear just as quickly.  It's difficult to tell what, if at all, impact these relationships had on her life and the way Amy is structured it's difficult to tell why they were included if she was on a somewhat doomed trajectory from the moment her father left her home.  Kepadia's focus isn't here though, it's everywhere, getting fragments of her life to narrate over the footage without it gelling into a connective tissue.

Asif Kepadia puts Winehouse's lyrics onscreen with their apparent inspirations - a bit of overkill considering the scenes are usually played next to each other.

Asif Kepadia puts Winehouse's lyrics onscreen with their apparent inspirations - a bit of overkill considering footage of the inspiration also plays alongside Winehouse singing the lyrics.

This is where the straightforward format of Kepadia's work doesn't do Amy any favors.  It's too easy to see the disconnect when events and information as presented in such a straightforward fashion.  Montage of Heck director could have taken Kurt Cobain's life and presented it in a similarly straightforward fashion but instead mixed different types of animation.  This kept things visually engaging and in Cobain's spirit.  More importantly, and where Amy falters, is how Montage of Heck presented Courtney Love as the strongest influence on Cobain and centered much of the runtime around her.  Amy makes gestures in this direction with Mitchell and Winehouse's boyfriends but it never develops into a strong narative and Kepadia's sole visual invention, putting Winehouse's lyrics onscreen, doesn't do anything to illuminate the music or the film.  Winehouse says she writes her life into her music and the direct life-to-writing inspiration is already clear without the lyrics.

Amy's not a bad movie by any stretch but the various little shortcomings and lack of visual innovation kept me from resonating with her story as much as her music.  Organizing the facts of Winehouse's life documents just how tragic her death was, but never connects to that tragedy.  Holding Winehouse at arm's length is something many in her life already did, and it's a shame Amy does the same.

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Tail - AmyAmy (2015)

Directed by Asif Kepadia.


Posted by Andrew

Comments (2) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I actually really liked this doc, and I didn’t find that it came up short. Good review though!

    • Thank you for the comment Courtney. I could definitely see someone enjoying this but with the other docs this year and the legacy Winehouse left behind I just wasn’t feeling it.

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