Asif Kapadia’s documentary on Amy Winehouse, titled Amy, is another affecting rush of archival footage, like his previous, breakout film, Senna. But this one has a more interesting, sometimes troubling relationship between the footage and the subject.
Winehouse’s story, from her teenage years to her death at age 27 in 2011, is presented through an evolution of camera perspectives and her levels of accordance with those perspectives. Early on, the footage comes from more personal and friendly sources — mobile-phone home movies, mainly — and she’s more playful and exhibitionistic. By the end, she’s primarily seen through paparazzi clips, and she tends to be hiding from those shooting her.
It’s a brilliant progression, one Kapadia has discussed and clearly intended, and he’s even aware of how ethically questionable it was to employ — that is, pay for — the paparazzi material. This is footage that harmed Winehouse, by invading her privacy and helping to perpetuate a negative media image of the singer, leading to her demise, and now it serves a sort of villainous purpose for the narrative structure of Amy.
By making the paparazzi footage the villain of the film, though, Kapadia also implicates the viewer of that footage. The documentary provokes a tremendous amount of emotion from its audience, and the foremost reaction from people is that it’s a tearjerker. But it should also make us feel very uncomfortable as we watch Winehouse through such a hostile lens. We get mad, and some of that anger is directed at ourselves.
The way Amy has us coming away finding ourselves a guilty party in the story is not immediately a conscious thing for every viewer, even if the discomfort is felt. But the film has other obvious hints that we all are to blame for Winehouse’s death, specifically through our general acceptance of being entertained by mean-spirited media and talk show monologues that made her the butt of so many cheap jokes directed at her addiction to drugs and alcohol.
The footage itself is the big bad of the documentary, though, along with those people behind the cameras and the violently flashing bulbs (as is her father, through his involvement with a reality TV production, and he has every right to be upset about being portrayed as a villain here, whether it’s true or not). And there is definitely a problem to its inclusion at the same time as it’s necessary and beneficial to the storytelling. This is hardly a strange dilemma for nonfiction cinema, as every piece of amassed material has layers of significance behind it, often both good and bad. Winehouse’s life was worse for there being the production of this footage that now Amy is better for in its existing.
Is that okay? As long as we’re not still just meaning to be entertained. And if we are able to understand how the footage may be the villain but the editor of that footage — Chris King, who also worked on Senna — is in turn the hero. Not enough of a present hero to save the life of the film’s damsel in distress but one that exposes her killers, like a homicide detective focused on broad, abstract and systemic murderers.
Documentaries may turn the weapons of their villains back against them, as Alain Resnais does with the gas chambers in Night and Fog and so many left-leaning filmmakers do with conservative media clips. They allow us to see what these tools do or have done, and with Amy, by seeing the torment of Winehouse through the paparazzi’s lens it’s like we’re being put into the mind of the monster not to emphatically understand it but to see just how terrible its point of view is and maybe make the monster more aware of its own monstrosity. It’s akin to what Joshua Oppenheimer does in The Act of Killing with its villains reenacting their crimes.
I also liken what Kapadia and King do with the footage to what Winehouse did with her own personal demons, the ones that also certainly are to blame in part for her self-destruction and eventual death. She took her problem with addiction and turned it into the song that ironically became her biggest breakthrough hit, “Rehab.” Of course, the fame and fortune that came with that success didn’t turn out to be a full positive for her, but it did initially seem like another instance of turning something bad into a good thing.
I doubt Kapadia expects Amy to make a difference with how the media and particularly paparazzi treat celebrities. It’s not a doc that makes a direct plea against what happened to Winehouse and what goes on regularly with entertainment media in general. It’s not Bully II: Celebrity Edition. But it does have the power to get through to people by making them feel a certain way, and for some of us that feeling will extend to taking issue with and/or appreciating its encouragement of the enemy.
This review was originally published on July 7, 2015.