Pretty Upsetting at the End

Amy, directed by Asif Kapadia

In March of 2006 Amy Winehouse was in New York recording the album that became Back to Black. We see and hear her laying down the vocal track for the title song. The lyrics are about a man going back to his girlfriend, and they are direct and tough: “He left no time to regret/ kept his dick wet/ with his same old safe bet.” Then, at the line about “getting on without her guy” the full range of the instruments comes in and remains for 75 seconds through a lyric section about her “troubled track” and a period of “dying a hundred times.” Just as abruptly as it came in, the music drops out, again leaving only her compelling voice. It’s the part of the song where she repeats the word “black” three times, and with each repetition the tone darkens. Earlier she’d said that her lyrics, which were always based on personal experience, could be sad, an impression she is reluctant to leave. Her solution was to “always put in a punchline,” which was what she did. After singing the third “black” she seemed initially pensive and then surprised, saying to Mark Ronson in the recording room, “Oh, it’s pretty upsetting at the end, isn’t it?” She concludes the segment by emitting a sort of comic growl, ending with “Boom, boom, boom.”

If you think of her question as a statement, you will have found the governing emotion for Asif Kapadia’s superb two-hour long documentary about the life and death of Amy Winehouse, the enormously talented British singer-songwriter who died in 2011 at the age of 27. The recording scene, like every other one in the film, is meticulously constructed. Ronson, a producer and DJ, said that over the course of their working together Amy had told him stories about the tempestuous relationship between her and Blake Fielder, the club hanger-on who became her lover, husband, enabling drug supplier and dark muse. In the process, she also provided her key to writing convincing lyrics: “You have to remember how you felt, what the weather was like, what his neck smelled like, you have to remember all of it.” Ronson seems amazed that on the first day she wrote the lyrics and melody for the single “Back to Black” in less than three hours. He has nothing but praise for her professionalism.

What is equally deserving of praise is Kapadia’s direction. In making Amy, he becomes a compiler, researcher and interviewer as much as a director. He conducted almost 100 interviews and located a wealth of private and public archival material that he employs in inventive ways. His telling of the story is so seamless that you can be forgiven if you think it was written as a script rather than lived as a life.

Because the outcome of the story is known, normally unremarkable incidents and casual comments people make carry the weight of that awareness. The film has an inescapable teleological trajectory. When Amy leaves a phone message for Nick Shymansky, a friend and former manager who has been avoiding her, she playfully casts herself as a neglected, but loyal lover. “I will love you unconditionally until the day that my heart fails and I fall down dead.” Winehouse died from heart failure brought about by excessive drug and alcohol abuse, as well as from constant bulimic purging. In 2003, just as Frank, her first album, is released, she is asked by a journalist from The Observer how big she is going to be. “I don’t think I’m going to be famous at all,” she says. “I don’t think I could handle it. I’d probably go mad.” Five years and six Grammys later, the success of Back to Black and the notoriety surrounding her personal life have made her a constant target of the paparazzi. She spins out of control; she is living a kind of madness.

One of the most noticeable things about Amy is that it traces a story of extremes in a form of documentary that is quite conventional. The film presents the development of her career as a progressive chronology of songs written and recorded, prizes won and accolades earned, all conveyed through a range of public attention that in its most benign form was a media circus and at its worst, a feeding frenzy.

It uses some clever devices, like having the lyrics Amy is singing appear as writing on the screen. The technique not only makes clear lines that are not always easily heard or understood, but also reminds us of the yellow lined pages of foolscap on which she wrote her lyrics, the rhyming words and lines surrounded by hearts drawn in blue ink. They look like the diary pages of a little girl; the writing reads like the psychic record of a fierce and worldly woman.

Robert Motherwell, who knew something about depression, remarked that while Kafka’s talent made him immortal, who would want to live his life? Something of that complication could be applied equally to the life of Amy Winehouse. In a song she performed in Rotterdam at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 2004, she described her destructive side as being a mile wide. She might have been underestimating the scale. By 2011 at her final concert in Belgrade she refused to sing. She was declaring the end of the kind of soul-and-art-destroying tours to which she was contractually obligated and her silence was an act of tremendous courage. The use of the concert footage here is revelatory; Kapadia dials up the red and yellow in the cell phone video images, and we see Amy sitting at the back of the stage and looking at the angry crowd in front of her with a knowing smile on her face. It is the expression of someone who has escaped; they are where they are now but they won’t be there in the future.

Winehouse was capable of behaviour that was damaging to her physical, psychic and professional well-being. Her relationship with Fielder was the catalyst for most of that self-sabotage. “I fell in love with someone I would have died for, we were in love and we were together and that’s like a real drug isn’t it?” The lessons learned from him pushed her to the edge. “Blake taught me to go for things, to throw yourself into a situation or you’ll never know what might have been. Life is short.”

Despite the darkness, the film never loses an appreciation for Amy’s intelligence, wit and her enduring capacity to live life to the fullest. “We’re going to Birmingham to sing songs and make merry,” she quips, and Amy includes evidence of that merriment. For a video tour of an apartment in Majorca, she adopts the persona and accent of a Russian domestic who proudly points out the closet she sleeps in when the master returns home. Her performance is hilarious. Yasiin Bey, the hip-hop artist who became friends with Amy after meeting her in 2004 at the Urban Music Festival in London, summarized her appeal: “She was raw, she was fast with a blue joke, could drink anybody under the table, wasn’t afraid to roll a smoke, had a big giant laugh and was just a sweetheart.” Bey, who admits to having “a bit of a crush on her,” emerges as one friend who remained loyal. They are a scant few: Nick, Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, her teenage friends and flatmates, Salaam Remi, and Andrew Morris, her bodyguard.

They are more than matched by people who exploited her, music industry types, promoters, and the two men who relentlessly took advantage of her vulnerability: Fielder, with whom she fell obsessively in love, and her father, Mitch, the rehab-denier who comes across as a greedy and completely self-serving hypocrite. Kapadia never makes judgements about these individuals; he leaves them to indict themselves through the things they say and what they do. It is not a pretty picture.

What is reiterated over and over again is that Amy was most alive when she was singing. Sam Beste, a pianist and friend who played with her for years, said that her dream was to play in jazz clubs for small audiences. “She had one of the most pure, emotional relationships to music, like she needed music as if it were a person and that she would die for it.” Much of the vitality she projected came from the fact that for her, performance was a way of reliving her life in the form of songs. “I write songs because I’m fucked up in my head and I need to put it on paper to feel better about it, to have something good come out of something bad.”

She had plans for a number of collaborative projects that she wanted to do. Early on, just as her fame was starting to kick in, an interviewer asked her how she would define success. “Success to me is having the freedom to work with whomever I want to work with, to always be able to fuck everything off and go to the studio when I have to.” When the interviewer says that as she becomes “an artist in the public eye” that is going to be more difficult, her response is a simple plea: “The more people see me the more they’ll realize all that I’m good for is making tunes, so leave me alone and I’ll do it. I just need time to do the music.”

Time was what she ended up having too little of. It’s tempting to apply a kind of romantic speculation to lost greatness. It’s what we do with heroes who die too young; Christopher Marlowe, John Keats, Egon Schiele, Robert Johnson, James Dean, Jean Harlow, Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Heath Ledger. But speculation of this kind sends us on a fool’s errand. The truth is we don’t need to know what Amy would have become, because we know what she was: the most naturally gifted and unique singer-songwriter of the last 50 years.

It’s what Salaam Remi, who produced her early songs, was getting at when he said, “she has the stylings of a 65-year-old jazz singer who knew the ropes up and down.” Tony Bennett, one of her early idols, asked her to record Body and Soul for his “Duets” project and placed her in a league with a pair of jazz heavyweights: “She was one of the truest jazz singers I ever heard. To me, she should be treated like Ella Fitzgerald, like Billie Holiday. She had the complete gift.”

As a documentary, Amy is a complete gift of its own, a film commensurate with the quality of its subject. It is riveting, impeccably constructed and utterly compelling. It is also a heartbreaker. You can’t tell the singer from the song any more than you can separate Yeats’s eternal dancer from his dance. Because he recognizes that inseparability and presents it with the honesty and complexity that is its due, Asif Kapadia has done something remarkable: his Amy raises the act of documentary to the art of tragedy.

Volume 34, Number 3: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #135, published August 2015.

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