“Amy”, the new biopic about the troubled British singer Amy Winehouse, starts on the evening of her friend's 14th birthday. Winehouse is sitting at the foot of some stairs with two friends sucking lollipops, while the birthday girl films them on a home-video recorder.
The trio start to sing “Happy Birthday”, but the friends’ childlike voices trail off as Winehouse’s voice—like “a 65-year-old jazz singer”, as her producer Salaam Remi will later put it—fills the air. Already she possesses a talent that can silence a room. At a screening at the East End Film Festival in London, followed by a Q&A with the film's director, Asif Kapadia, viewers erupted into laughter at the scene. It was a rare moment of light in what turned into a harrowing film.
Directors of biopics about the dead have to grapple with the critical problem of telling the story of a life without the person who lived it to fill in the gaps. Kapadia’s approach, one he used to much acclaim with “Senna”, is to edit together other people’s film footage. There are no reconstructions or talking heads in “Amy”. Instead we hear Kapadia’s interviews with the people who knew Winehouse, such as her father Mitch, her husband Blake Fielder-Civil and her best friends.
In the Q&A after the screening, Kapadia said he interviewed his subjects before they agreed to be in the film, then asked them to sign a document once they had heard the recording to allow it to be used. It was the only way he could get around people’s unwillingness to talk about Winehouse—an unwillingness he put down to a combination of guilt and paranoia about who was to blame for her death, aged 27.
On screen, we see Amy first as her earliest friends did, as a gobby, vital child. Then we see her through the eyes of the paparazzi, thin and cowering, with her towering beehive hair-do and push-up bra, eking out a nightmarish existence. We see her peering from windows, being prodded by faceless photographers and blinded by flashing lights every time she dares step outside. Kapadia guides us from one Amy to the other, through gigs in jazz bars, a record deal, international headlines and gradually escalating drug addiction. On the way, he forces the viewer to confront the same combination of guilt and paranoia that struck Winehouse’s closest friends. Are we, he asks, somehow to blame?
In one scene towards the end, fan footage shows Winehouse coming on stage in front of tens of thousands of people in Belgrade and sitting down, unable to perform. “She’s drunk, she doesn't know where she is,” we hear an audience member say nearby. She’s booed off. We cannot fathom how Winehouse felt in that moment. But Kapadia allows us to revisit the full horror of our voyeurism. “It was like a feeding frenzy,” said her ex-manager Nick Shymansky.
“When we were making it we found ourselves in the middle of it with her,” Kapadia said at the screening. “It was nasty and visceral to see how it would be to be under attack. We start with films of her with her friends, and as the film goes on it becomes the paparazzi hounding her, saying, ‘Cheer up, love.’ It was a conscious decision to show her relationship with the camera.”
Kapadia recognised that it would have been impossible to get the measure of Winehouse’s legacy just three years after she died. Instead, he has created a frenzied portrait of one awful truth of celebrity culture: that we cannibalise vulnerable people for cash. Winehouse had many problems. But Kapadia shows us that our willingness to dehumanise her—to turn her into an object for consumption—only contributed to her decline.
Amy is in cinemas now