Monday, July 13, 2015

Dying in public

“You should be stronger than me,” goes one of numerous queasily portentous lyrics heard during Amy, Asif Kapadia’s documentary about the late British jazz and soul singer Amy Winehouse. Winehouse delivered those words with the same playful, dexterous, at times almost abstract vocal style that characterized all her music—like Billie Holiday, Winehouse had a way of rendering heavy sentiments with a disarming, sometimes teasing coo. But the words of ‘Stronger Than Me’ reverberate through this devastating film because we can’t help but wonder if things would have turned out very differently had Winehouse’s family, friends, lovers, collaborators and business partners been a little stronger. It’s not an unreasonable expectation, given that Winehouse was still a teenager when she began her career, which rocketed her to stardom before coming to a screeching halt in 2011, when Winehouse, at age 27, died from alcohol poisoning and complications arising from various addictions and bulimia.  

Amy features a running voice-over that weaves together several new interviews with those who knew and worked with her into a grand collective testimony (or port-mortem). But, echoing Kapadia’s earlier documentary Serra, Amy restricts its visual component entirely to archival materials, including a great deal of casual video made on consumer-grade cameras and cell phones—Winehouse was young enough to be a member of a generation accustomed to making videos of virtually everything they do. The result can be arrestingly intimate, as well as crappy looking, and, given the deep, morbid unease that grows over the course of the film, it is not altogether dissimilar to a found-footage horror film. We start out watching someone with tremendous talent come to realize her potential for creative and commercial success, but it’s not too long before we get wise to where this is all inevitably leading: we’re watching someone fall into a pit, grasping at loose dirt along the way. We’re watching someone devoid of coping tools struggle to navigate addiction and fame at its most oppressive. We’re watching someone die in public. 

Which is to say that Amy makes a perfect companion piece to Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, replete with the codependent and enabling addict spouse as a key character in the story. (Though in Winehouse’s case the figure in her life who appears to carry the heaviest burden of guilt in facilitating her collapse is her father, who’s actually mentioned in ‘Rehab,’ Winehouse’s brilliant, blackly comic hit, as dissuading her from seeking help.) There is, of course, an obvious difference between Amy and Montage: Montage made extremely creative use of archival materials—home movies, journals, tape recordings, et cetera—to create a film bearing a certain aesthetic kinship to its subject’s work and incorporated new material—interviews, animation—when necessary. Amy, by contrast, is slavish about its formalist conceit—other than the use of written lyrics superimposed on screen, there’s nothing visual in Amy that isn’t archival. I often admire films that apply rigour to a formal proposal, but so little of what’s on screen in Amy is compellingly cinematic and there are several scenes where the clumsily shot footage feels like a placeholder as we work through the narrative. I wonder whether or not this choice really helps the film tell its story or simply limits how that story is told. 

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