Powerful film but too tabloid; for Winehouse’s art, not as good as Linnane’s Dingle doc

The documentary biography Amy, by Asif Kapadia (Senna), is an powerful film about the brilliant singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse. It’s also a sad cautionary tale of modern celebrity media’s brutal effect on a sensitive soul and the devastation that can be wrought, especially in such circumstances, by drugs and alcohol. As in previous films, Kapadia tells his story without talking heads. Here because of the filmmaker’s access to survivors and to personal documents and Amy’s presence at the centre of a media feeding frenzy, one has almost the feeling of experiencing her life with her day by day, if posthumously. It’s fascinating to see early or intimate clips showing Amy’s precocious talents, her high spirits, her sense of humour, her irrepressible personality at its freshest and liveliest and healthiest.

The film presents her early life in enough detail to understand the tendencies and traumas the singer-songwriter later struggled with, leading to her tragic death from alcohol-induced heart failure four years ago at 27. Her talent showed itself early and unmistakably. In her early teens, she could make “Happy Birthday” sound like a riff by Billie Holiday. By eighteen, she was a full-fledged star. There is not as much as there might have been about the multiple musical influences that fed her songwriting and singing style — but more about that later.

We learn that Amy’s youthful home life was really quite sunny and happy, with friendly siblings and close girlfriends. But later we hear from her childhood best friend Juliete Ashby how Amy called her up to the stage at the Grammy Awards, at the peak of her success, and told her, “Jules, this is so boring without drugs.”

I wish I felt about this film as Peter Bradshaw did when he wrote his five-out-of-five-star Guardian review after he saw it at Cannes. His enthusiastic description is how I first, vicariously, experienced the film. The actual film feels different for me — not only sad, but, I fear, more tabloid and less adequate as an artistic portrait. Despite the unique figure at the centre of it, this still becomes a familiar tale of pain, dysfunction and addiction and progressive decline, all happening in the limelight.

It’s also a revealing tale of bad influences that are unmistakable in the case of three men. There were positive ones, such as Amy’s early manager and friend, though he admits now too close a friend to be a wise manager, Nick Shymansky; understanding hip hop star and actor yasin bey (aka Mos Def); and reliable bodyguard Andrew Morris. And there were others. But the bad guys seem to have had the greater effect.

First among these was Amy’s father, London cabbie Mitchell Winehouse. His abandonment of the family when she was nine was the devastating trauma of the sensitive, creative girl’s childhood. When she became famous, he made a brand of himself and came along to capitalise. The first time she was pressed by recording company authorities to go into rehab, he rejected the idea, as is famously recalled in her song, “Rehab.”: “They tried to make me go to rehab but I said, ‘No, no, no.’/Yes, I’ve been black but when I come back you’ll know, know, know/I ain’t got the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine…I won’t go, go, go.” Second was her boyfriend and on-and-off husband Blake Fielder-Civil, with whom she had a passionate, painful love affair. The tall, skinny main squeeze with the perpetual porkpie hat and stylish clothes was the ultimate Bad Influence, a codependent enabler drug addict with similar psychological issues who admittedly was the one who first introduced her to heroin. Protocol was waived to allow the couple to go into rehab together: they bolted early on.

Third was her mistaken choice of producer Raye Cosbert as her manager. As is stated in the film, Cosbert’s priority was always getting her out on the road, which consistently had a bad effect on her. A nadir of the story comes when she is taken from home in London, asleep or passed out, direct to the airport and a private plane to a concert in Belgrade, a commitment she did not want to honour, and she comes onstage so drunk and stoned she cannot perform. Raye Cosbert seems to have been the force behind this public humiliation. These three men reflect Amy’s need for a strong male figure — due in itself to her father’s disappearance from the family early on. They doubtless did the best they could, if in the case of the weak, insignificant hanger-on Blake, that was not very much. Their apologies may be sincere. They do not convince.

I read the film the way Bradshaw did; I just don’t rate it as high. I think NPR is dead wrong to say it counters the usual tabloid image of the doomed, dysfunctional star simply by showing the childhood was happy. The end of the film, with its many sequences of armies of cameras flashing in our faces, is very tabloid. Wherein does this “free Amy” from her “tabloid legacy”? It perpetuates it.

Much more accurate is In These Times’  summary, “The new documentary Amy reveals how the media–and the men in her life–exploited Winehouse’s mental illness, only to deify her after her death.” Amy was an addictive personality, and had other problems. It comes out late in the film that at fifteen he mother learned she was bulimic, and did nothing, hoping this was just a “phase.” It also appears, though not mentioned in the film, that Amy cut herself to deal with inner pain.

Some little personal details are missing. Bradshaw discusses, but Kapadia doesn’t, the “feline eyeliner style” Amy adopted “at some stage as a teenager” that was essential to her “jolie-laide” look (again Bradshaw’s phrase, not the film’s). Something crying out for discussion is Amy’s remarkable style sense; her street and onstage outfits are always striking, and she even introduced a clothing line with Fred Perry (which Jake Bugg is associated with today); but no mention of this here. In the music line, I’d have liked to know why she stopped playing the guitar in concerts.

More importantly I wanted to see the complexity of elements in her music discussed. We need to hear about her influences and how she came by them, have more chances to hear her songs and discuss them. This we get in Maurice Linnane’s excellent little film, Amy Winehouse, the Day She Came to Dingle. This was my own first close look at her music, and I almost wish I had stopped there. It presents a whole concert, along with both a fascinating interview where this self-declared ” Russian Jew” discusses her influences from jazz, rap, R&B, blues, girl bands, Madonna, gospel, and the rest, and brief samples of some of these, including Mahalia Jackson, provided by the filmaker. The intimate Dingle festival concert for a small audience was more the kind of venue the singer relished, not the thousands she disappointed in Belgrade. From this film we learn how sophisticated and catholic her style and its sources are.

Amy gives pride of place to Tony Bennett, showing the two singers working on a joint album that had her side-by-side with one of her idols. I would differ with Bennett’s insistence, twice repeated here, that she was “a jazz singer.” It is flattering that he compares her to jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Carmen McRae. But Amy’s range of influences was too eclectic to call her that. Kapadia’s documentary is an indispensable portrait for fans and an intense viewing experience. But its impact shouldn’t blind us to its shortcomings as a musical portrait.

Amy debuted at Cannes. Other festivals. US release by A28 3 July 2015; also UK. Wide US release 10 July.

Director: Asif Kapadia
Writer: Asif Kapadia
Stars: Amy, Mitchell, Janis Winehouse, Salaam Remy, yasin bey, Nick Shymansky, Juliete Ashby, Blake Fielder-Civil, Mark Ronson, Tyler James, Sam Beste
Runtime: 128 mins
Country: UK

Film Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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  1. Profile photo of Kevin Matthews

    I have to respectfully disagree here, Chris, although I have yet to see the other doc you mention. I think that the tabloid frenzy was part and parcel of the problem, and many people (myself included) only knew Amy Winehouse when shown drunk or under the influence of drugs, or just generally a bit worse for wear. To see the same events played out from a more intimate angle is what breaks that web that the audience-titillating newspapers and news outlets tried to keep spun around her. In my opinion anyway. But I’ll still try to see that Dingle doc at some point :-)

  2. Profile photo of Chris Knipp

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Kevin. I think if we discussed this we’d probably agree. I only said Kapadia’s doc has “shortcomings as a musical portrait,” with the Dingle doc doing better in the latter area, which is the one that interests me. Same as with Geoff Dyer’s book “But Beautiful,” about great jazz artists, I’m not that interested in all their dysfunctinalities as he is, but primarily in their music. Unfortunately every artist plays best as a train wreck, and Amy is certainly prime material for that. Kapadia’s doc is excellent nonetheless and I said it’s “an indispensable portrait for fans.”

  3. Profile photo of Chris Knipp

    P.s. I guess in my subtitle “Powerful film but too tabloid” I’m guilty of simplifying too much. My review is meant to be more complicated than that.

  4. Profile photo of Chris Knipp

    Amy Winehouse At The BBC [CD/DVD Combo][Explicit]” (Amazon US) Editorial description:
    “2012 two disc (CD/DVD) set from the beloved British vocalist. This set includes a CD that features 14 rare BBC recordings dating from 2004 to 2009. The DVD, The Day She Came to Dingle, is a short film featuring a fascinating interview with the artist intercut with Amy, at the height of her powers, delivering an electrifying 20 minute live performance recorded in December 2006 in a tiny church. The DVD was taped two months after Back To Black was released. Amy went on to win five Grammy Awards including Best Record, Best Song, Best New Artist, a Brit Award, two lvor Novello Awards arid many more. This collection will prove. once more a fitting tribute to her peerless artistry. phenomenal talent. and extraordinary powers as a songwriter, a singer and an interpreter of classics.”

    Available from Amazon.co.uk including an extra DVD, just doesn’t have this description.

  5. Profile photo of Kevin Matthews

    Dagnammit, very tempted to purchase that set.

    *shakes fist while reaching for wallet*


  6. Profile photo of Chris Knipp

    I want to, despite not wanting to spend the money.

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