During the summer blockbuster season, it’s easy for smaller, more offbeat and adventurous movies to get lost in the shuffle. Every Tuesday for six weeks, local film writer and alumnus Paul Matwychuk (’93 English & Film Studies, ’98 LLB) will come to your aid by highlighting a cinematic “hidden gem”— a movie that deserves your attention, even if you might not be aware it exists.
Let it be said up front that while Amy, Asif Kapadia’s new documentary about the tragically short life of singer Amy Winehouse, is a sad and heartbreaking experience, it’s also full to bursting with life and humour. I watched it the same night as Trainwreck and I think I laughed harder at the clip where Winehouse rolls her eyes and nods with mock interest as an interviewer prattles on and on about Dido than at anything Amy Schumer did in her movie. And Amy Schumer is really damn funny.
That, of course, was a big part of Winehouse’s appeal when she burst onto the British music scene in 2003 with her album Frank. It wasn’t just her remarkably mature voice, influenced by decades’ worth of great jazz and blues singers (Winehouse combined the focused vocal power of Dinah Washington with the idiosyncratic, sinuous phrasing of Billie Holiday — kittenish yet tough); it was her lack of pretense and total inability to censor herself. There’s a clip in Amy where British chat-show host Jonathan Ross tells her he likes her because she’s “common,” like himself. She doesn’t take it as an insult. (A few clips later, charmingly, you see her wearing the very same dress to the Ivor Novello Awards.) She was a good time gal, and she made for great television.
She continued to made great copy even when she became a pop superstar thanks to 2006’s monster hit album Back to Black, but her consumption of drugs and alcohol (not to mention her bulimia) got out of control. Few films have made being photographed seem like more of a literal physical assault than Amy — there are several sequences in which the increasingly frail and disheveled Winehouse (usually accompanied by her lover, enabler and eventual husband Blake Fielder) attempts to walk down the street while surrounded by dozens of paparazzi, their flashbulbs filling the screen with blinding white light. We see plenty of the resulting photos in Amy, those famous shots of her in her filthy ballet flats, her mascara smudged, her hair a rat’s nest, her collarbones nearly protruding through her skin, that made her fodder for countless late-night comedians, who apparently found her worsening health and obvious emotional distress deeply hilarious.
It wasn’t just her remarkably mature voice, it was her lack of pretense and total inability to censor herself.
Amy balances out that tabloid image of Winehouse, however, with a treasure trove of home movies, cellphone footage and candid snapshots of Winehouse hanging out with her friends and colleagues at her flat in Camden. A natural ham, her star quality and down-to-earth sense of humour stands out even in still photos. In one wonderful sequence, she takes a friend on a tour of her new apartment, talking a mile a minute in a ridiculous Greek accent and pretending to be her own abused maid. (She points at a tiny cupboard in the kitchen and cheerfully says, “That’s where I sleep.”)
Naturally, the film also contains plenty of footage of Winehouse singing — not just in concerts and on TV shows, but privately at home, and in the studio. You don’t need me to tell you that she was the real deal; it’s obvious from the scene where she lays down the vocal track for “Back to Black,” nailing not just every note but every emotional turn of the song’s raw, witty lyrics. Indeed, Kapadia seems particularly intent on highlighting Winehouse’s talent not merely as a singer but as a songwriter too — he puts the lyrics of each song onscreen, so that we can better appreciate their compact power and Winehouse’s way with vivid, unexpected images.
Kapadia specializes in documentaries about talented people who died young — his previous film was 2010’s Senna, about Brazilian auto racing legend Ayrton Senna — but somehow his films never end up seeming ghoulish or exploitative. Amy is a celebration of a great pop artist’s life, and a heartfelt eulogy for her vast wasted potential. Music meant everything to Amy Winehouse, and if it means even a little to you, this is a movie you should see.
Amy is playing at Landmark Cinemas 9 City Centre Edmonton.
Directed by Asif Kapadia. Featuring Amy Winehouse.
Photos courtesy of Mongrel Media.