By Dan Cantagallo
Thanks to the bloodsport of celebrity culture, we all know how this story ends. Yet Asif Kapadia’s elegiac biographical documentary Amy avoids myth and sentimentality by assembling unexplored footage of Amy Winehouse, mostly captured by those who knew her best and documented her at her worst. Kapadia’s grim critique ultimately hinges on the motivations of the prominent camera-wielding men in her life and their own relationship to paparazzi culture and the spotlight of fame. Did the cameras play a pivotal role in killing Winehouse after all?
The film’s biggest found footage coup comes courtesy of the singer’s adolescent inner circle. Her childhood friends, Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, and her first manager, Nick Shymanksy, broke a vow of silence to provide the emotional context and background for Amy. Though the friends never appear onscreen as talking heads, they recount stories of her pre-fame, as we witness these never-before-seen videos. Through Shymansky’s amateur handheld camera, we see Winehouse at her most poignantly raw, as well as at her most accessible and vibrantly alive. The camera’s presence is a boyish extension of the camaraderie felt by kids giddily documenting an unsupervised coming-of-age adventure: the freedom of the road, silly jokes in pool halls, self-conscious performances at dingy clubs. Buzzing with tender innocence and dreamy possibilities, Winehouse naturally takes center stage in the blotchy footage, showing early signs of the charisma and swagger that would catapult her to the dizzying heights of stardom. At one point, Shymanksy turns the camera on Winehouse, as she’s half-sleeping in the back of the car. He implores her to give him a smile. She refuses and playfully covers her face with a blanket. It might be the last time the camera is not wielded against her as a psychological weapon of exposure or humiliation, which is pretty much how the rest of the film unfolds as her star ascends. And explodes.
The next cameraman is not so nice: her bad boy muse Blake Fielder-Civil, who is portrayed as less Prince Charming, more Prince of Darkness. A philandering party boy with the husky staccato voice of a matinee villain, he nonetheless convincingly articulates the attraction between Winehouse and himself as being their mutual appetite for destruction and self-sabotage. As she immersed herself in the druggy Camden indie rock scene that shared her contempt for fame and bemusement over celebrity, Fielder-Civil zeroed in on her vulnerability, revealing that Winehouse admitted to him that her promiscuity and bad behavior stemmed from her parents’ separation at age nine. She described her cab-driving father, Mitch, as mostly an absent presence anyway, but his official departure from the family led her to a liberating and terrifying realization. She could do practically anything she wanted — skip school, smoke weed, hang with her boyfriend — while her mother, Janis, confessed to being a hopeless disciplinarian who couldn’t say no. The bad girl role fit too easily for Winehouse, and with her newfound rebellion, other demons entered the picture: bulimia, of which her mother admitted to willfully ignoring, and serious depression, for which she eventually took medication.
After a heated affair, Fielder-Civil ditched Winehouse for his old girlfriend, only to return to Amy for good when her public profile exploded in the UK and America following the release of her Back To Black album. Kapadia skillfully uses footage from Fielder-Civil’s quasi-video diary, where he comes off as a dumbstruck accessory to her talent and fame, sporting a shit-eating grin during a randy New York photo shoot with Terry Richardson for the iconic Rolling Stone cover. Later, Fielder-Civil admits that his wedding gift to Winehouse was an introduction to crack cocaine and hard drugs. Lacking any real devotion or concern for his partner, Fielder-Civil’s footage gives off the sinister whiff of blackmail at the first sign of betrayal or easy money.
Meanwhile, the paparazzi became a voracious and uninvited third wheel to Winehouse’s extracurricular antics. There is no person to say no, only more cameras. Kapadia shows the blinding flashes and violent shutter sounds that accompany the couple’s descent into a tempest of narcotics. From there, it becomes disturbingly clear that the press sees its role as ever-vigilant witness to the deterioration of Winehouse’s mental health in the name of celebrity infotainment and our own prurient gaze. This invading photographic army appears as mostly freelancing young men, a jeering and goading all-seeing male eye that pushes the singer into making a gesture or comment they hope will snag headlines.
Eventually, Winehouse and Fielder-Civil did check into rehab, not separately but together, which is as bad an idea as it sounds. During one scene, simmering with resentment, he thrusts a camera in her face, mockingly asking her to tell him where they are. She remains silent. Another person in their entourage chimes in with “rehab.” With the camera still fixed on Winehouse, Fielder-Civil then taunts and presses her to update the lyrics to her most famous track, “Rehab”. Finally she responds, “I don’t actually mind it here.” Kapadia slows this sickening and haunting moment down to nearly a freeze-frame of a close-up of Winehouse’s expression of sadness and exhaustion as the magnified video image breaks down and disintegrates. And it only gets sadder.
Amy does not make clear the official point in time when the third man, who brings not only a camera but an entire crew, re-enters her life. Mitch Winehouse, who agreed to participate in Kapadia’s film but now considers it a “disgrace” (he’s planning a counter-documentary to dispute Kapadia’s work and offer a more favorable view of his relationship with his daughter), pops back up in the film at the critical moment when he refuses to give his blessing for the singer to go to rehab, despite the protestations from nearly everyone, most importantly her childhood friends. This is one of the more heartbreaking lessons on display, how those with a person’s best interests at heart can get stripped away or opt-out and be replaced by less trustworthy and more cynical figures as they lose themselves in the soulless juggernaut that superstardom demands. The film also insinuates Mitch’s choices may be a case of Daddy Knows Best (for Daddy), as he suddenly appears to be making business and financial decisions for an ever-more helpless and zombified Winehouse, whose early vitality seen in the film has all but vanished in stark proportion to the now constant attention of the cameras.
Mitch’s fame-pimping became shockingly apparent when Winehouse, finally free of both hard drugs and Fielder-Civil (who was doing a stretch in prison), decamped to Saint Lucia to escape the paparazzi and work on songs for a new album. Following her down to the Caribbean was her father, shooting an episode for his reality-TV show, which starred not Amy but himself. In one exemplary scene, Mitch tries to play the big man for the camera and present an autograph-seeking couple to his daughter. At first, Winehouse recoils, puzzled over why her father has brought a camera crew in tow without her permission. Finally she signs, and her father tries to scold her for “ungrateful” behavior. It’s an excruciatingly painful betrayal to watch. Mitch’s cameraman doesn’t even know if he should carry on filming, as he constantly drops the frame to the ground, revealing the shuffling of feet, as it sinks in that the person Winehouse believed was supposed to protect her from the crush of fans, the rabid press and the overwhelming pressures of fame is actually on their shitty side. Wounded, she mutters to her father, “Why are are you trying to make a mug out of me?”
It begs the question: why are we experiencing this woman’s very public disintegration again? To this, Kapadia takes a last parting shot at the malignant gaze of celebrity culture. On the night before she died, Winehouse’s bodyguard reveals, she confided in him that she would trade her voice and her music for the opportunity to just walk down the street un-harassed. Considering Winehouse was working on new material and planning a super band with Questlove and Mos Def (now known as Yasiin Bey), it’s a hard story to rest your case on, and it threatens to shake the foundations of Kapadia’s subtle and effective finger-pointing at the men with their cameras. Would putting the cameras down have prevented or stopped Winehouse’s death? She certainly needed music to live, but sadly it might not have been enough to save her from her demons of self-hatred, from her bad relationships with men, from us with our thirst for more media. All we know for certain is that she is gone, and for a lot of people, it still hurts.