The Voice of the Beehive
I will be honest and admit that I never really bought into the whole Amy Winehouse circus: which is to say that I couldn't quite see why she was the subject of so much media attention in her final years. Probably this is because her rise to genuine megastardom happened while I was off going through my own World Tour phase: although I do recall going to a gig in a repurposed bomb shelter on the outskirts of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (I should point out that this gives an utterly misleading impression of how interesting my life has been), and being mildly surprised when one of the bands launched into a cover of 'Back in Black'. Perhaps this should have tipped me off to the fact that the girl I vaguely recalled being mouthy on the Jonathan Ross show had become an international phenomenon.
How all this happened and how it came to an end is the subject of Asif Kapadia's film Amy. Kapadia received plaudits a few years ago for a similar project concerning the F1 driver Ayrton Senna, and my impression is that the new film is doing similarly well, and not necessarily just with the young people who I imagine would be Winehouse's natural fanbase.
The film opens with self-shot footage of a bunch of teenagers messing about on the occasion of one of their birthdays: the year is 1998, and it looks very much like any other piece of fluff you might find on a popular video-sharing website, until one of them starts singing 'Happy Birthday' and your mouth drops open at the size and richness of her voice. It is, of course, a 15-year-old Amy Winehouse, and' – it's hard not to watch this very old footage looking for portents of doom' – she inevitably has a fag in her hand while she is singing.
From here the film goes in some detail through Winehouse's rise and fall: signed by the same management company as the Spice Girls before the age of 20, winning an Ivor Novello songwriting award at 21, a switch from jazz to more soul-influenced music resulting in the massively popular Back to Black album, and a decline into drug and alcohol dependency, culminating in her death in 2011.
What's slightly startling about the film is simply the fact that it is possible now to produce a detailed and fairly intimate portrait of, virtually, a person's entire adult life, primarily using self-shot footage: Winehouse and her circle seem to have spent most of their time filming each other, whether they were socialising, recording music, going into rehab, or whatever. It's true that Kapadia makes use of media sources (clips from TV shows and so on), and there is also some establishing footage which looks specially shot, but most of the film is authentic archive material' – although the provenance of some of the interviews which make up the commentary track of the film is a little unclear (as with Senna, there is no narrator or editorial voice on display).
Perhaps this is just the nature of the modern world, but, again, it does seem emblematic of the fact that Winehouse arguably died because she found herself trapped in the media spotlight with literally no way of escaping it other than substance abuse. At least, this is the argument that the film is built around.
The other eye-opening thing about the film is, probably, the fact that it's been released at all in this form. You could argue that the film is impartial to the extent that there isn't a voice-over telling the viewer what conclusions to draw, but at the same time it would be an exceptional viewer who didn't come away from it with very pronounced ideas about who exactly should take the lion's share of the blame for Winehouse's premature death.
Certainly a number of key individuals close to Winehouse are depicted in the film as deeply unsavoury or suspect characters, and I'm not entirely surprised that the film has received a rancorous response from Winehouse's father Mitch in particular (apparently the threat of legal action from Winehouse Senior resulted in the film being recut prior to release: the mind boggles somewhat as to just how much more critical of him the original version could have been). But the refusal to take responsibility for Amy's wellbeing is there on the screen in his own words; the same is true for several others in the story.
Quite how biased Kapadia has been is probably best left for the individual viewer to decide for him or herself, but it is still a compelling story, steeped in sadness, but with some joyous music throughout. As I say, I was never that much of a fan of Amy Winehouse during her lifetime, but watching this film did leave me with the impression that I knew her, and also made me care about her in a way that I didn't expect at all. This is the story of a girl with a talent so raw and so massive that, ultimately, it killed her, and Asif Kapadia does it full justice. An excellent movie.