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Asif Kapadia’s Amy: the closer you get the less you see

Midway through Asif Kapadia’s second archival documentary – this one on the life of Amy Winehouse – a commentator remarks on the central star: “[she] was a jazz singer, more comfortable in front of a small crowd than a large one”. This comes over footage of the late singer sitting on stage in front of a crowd of thousands. She takes a drink and, in between songs, looks a little lost. It’s a small aside but a critical one. The contradictions found in the audio against the footage – as Winehouse and those with her make comment – elucidate the paradoxical nature of not just of the late singer but also modern celebrity and fame. With its zeitgeist in, the film will be labelled a great number of things – people were already calling it ‘that Amy Winehouse movie’ in the line before the picture. It triggers magazine headline trajectories, yet Amy (the film’s actual name) is more fitting un-titled because as much as it’s about the late singer, it expands its scope to be a haunting survey, an exposé of our celebrity-obsessed culture – one that would be didactic if not for its astute all-together appropriation of the modern media lexicon.

Kapadia’s third feature continues through the door opened with his second film Senna – a documentary on the eponymous race car driver (one that puts Ron Howard’s similar speed fiction Rush to shame), and almost solely uses archival footage with interview audio of subjects layered over the top. His formal coup with Amy then (the earlier film’s aesthetic progeny) is very much in the subject. Pop stars are cultural lightning rods; new material of them is being accumulated every day for mass consumption and assumption, there is an overabundance of photographs and footage to be used. Kapadia combines music videos, media interviews, paparazzi shots, concert footage, ‘never before seen’ home and behind the scenes video as well as primary-source drone photography establishing the London cityscape (where Winehouse lived), it is an eclectic assemblage, although one seeking to tell a thoroughly linear story. One that seeks to show the world ‘the real Amy’ (a statement otherwise in line with a 60 Minutes chapter if not an MTV/TMZ cover), from burgeoning local British talent travelling through England for small bar gigs with friends, to breakout artist with the recording of her most successful album Back to Black in 2006, to celebrity icon diminished as artist and person by the ever-gawking paparazzi cameras and a crippling addiction to drugs and alcohol – finally resulting in her death from alcohol poisoning in 2011.

In most music documentaries the relationship between image and sound is critical. It is even more so here. Winehouse’s musical talent is articulated in two shots as she sings in a recording studio – first with a backing track and then without, her soulful, incredible voice singing a song about spoiled love into what is an empty echo chamber. Rather symbolic as her obvious pleas for help are turned down – not going into rehab several times, enabled by long-time flame Blake Fielder-Civil in her addictions and by others close to her through a lack of care – when you become another’s pay cheque, they’re not going to allow you to drop everything and leave easily. History is a burden in this documentary, with the arc (to be so trite) already fully known; yet we do see a different side of her. None more lovely than a tour of her home she gives to a friend as a Jamaican housemaid or as she gushes – overawed at being able to perform with jazz legend Tony Bennett and none more saddening than at an awards show with a friend. She sweeps the Grammys, yet backstage she spills, “this is so boring without drugs”.

The picture not so much captures Winehouse’s life in the public eye as assumes it. The fallen-away but still recording camera of her father’s Living with Amy Winehouse reality show finds the singer trying, failing to make a clean break at her quite literal last resort rehab, in addition to the bumped, bullied yet undeterred paparazzi cameras slamming against car doors, pivoting down sidewalk streets to get clearer images of her. It activates repulsion and claustrophobia similar to Abel Ferarra’s excellent vivisection of celebrity myth and mania in Welcome to New York (we are what we create) while subtracting inertia for involvement – we as a culture deify the figures we mock in the same breath – how do we react when confronted with our own hypocrisy and the dangers of turning a blind eye to it?

The movie is absolutely engaging yet rightfully hard to watch. Amy will have viewers appreciating Amy Winehouse’s music beyond such hits as “Rehab” and “Back to Black”, attempting to know the ‘real Amy’ (although a close approximation is as close as one will probably get) and bearing witness to a very public death – Kapadia’s greatest, saddest trick is that the more we see in Amy the less we truly see of Amy Winehouse.

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