Gotta get this song down before I leave tonight,
But my hair just does its own thing and I gotta look all right.
And I gotta write a chorus but words elude me now.
I have to get this down before I leave somehow.
— Amy Winehouse, “Procrastination”
“Whenever I write anything sad, I never let it just be that way,” says Amy Winehouse. “I put a moral or a punchline in it.” Even before she’s a star, before she quite admits to writing songs, as opposed to “a few poems,” Winehouse has a giddy but also reasonable sense of who she is and what she wants to do. Early in Asif Kapadia’s terrific new documentary, Amy, her self-reflection leads to a recording of 2003’s “Stronger Than Me”, where she not only offers a moral, but also a sly commentary on that moral. “Don’t you know you supposed to be the man?” she sings, “Not pale in comparison to who you think I am.”
Even as the breakup song suggests familiar disappointments, its punchline raises the question of impossible expectations that so often plagues celebrities, sometimes with their friends and family members and always with strangers who think they know them. The movie makes the case that Winehouse’s short life and precipitate death at 27 are shaped by the differences between what she knows and what anyone else can possibly know, or more to the point, what anyone else imagines.
Some of that imagining is a function of the artist’s public performances, here offered up, by definition, as recordings. Much of this material is provided by her first manager and longtime friend Nick Shymansky, who, it turns out, filmed many of their early adventures, including road trips, visits to studios, performances and rehearsals. But even as his footage provides all kinds of intimate and even spontaneous-seeming moments, it also reveals that Winehouse is a brilliant and canny self-performer, mindful of her effects and her gifts.
The film opens on just such a moment, when, during a sleepover with girlfriends in Southgate, 1998, 14-year-old Amy sings happy birthday, her voice rich and her presentation fully mature. It’s a little unnerving, to see her so developed without much in the way of formal training. As the awkward home-movie camera only sort of keeps up with her wholly mesmerizing show, you’re inclined to see another element too, whether you seek signs of her future or even reasons for her addictions.
You see none of that, of course, because she’s 14 here, giddy with her own talent. Still, what you can’t see is as important as what we can, as the film cuts to scene after scene of Winehouse on and off stages, with and without her signature mascara and teased hair, alone and surrounded by people. The people range widely, and you start to wonder, sometimes, how they miss what you know is coming, or how they might have allowed it. Nick Gatfield, who signed her to Island Records, recalls pretty much what you see illustrated here, that “she was a complete force of nature,” with a typical 18-year-old’s attitude, but also an undeniable “charisma.” When Amy smiles at the camera, you might think you see Nick describes, that she “could make you feel so important and then, all of a sudden, not important, then so important again.” Under his voiceover, you see her riding in the back of a car back in 2002, his camera swinging for his own face to hers, both fresh and exhausted and not nearly prepared for what awaits them.
Such amateur footage is testament to how common it’s become to record all experiences. Before Facebook and marketing campaigns, these images document and celebrate time together, not necessarily significant at the time, and not necessarily conceived for imminent public view. That public view evolves as Winehouse becomes famous and also tabloid fodder, the experience she describes repeatedly as odious, as the dismal downside of being able to sing for a living, not precisely an option she envisions when she’s 18: “I’m lucky I can do it, “she says during a very early interview, “I didn’t think it’d be a career choice.”
As lucky as she might have been, the film charts her decline in fortune in carefully selected material, archival interviews and images as well as some drawn also from private (“previously unseen”) sources, and in this, Amy resembles Kapadia’s excellent 2011 documentary, Senna, mixing homemade footage and TV reports. Winehouse’s story occurs some years after Ayrton Senna’s (though before everyone had a cell phone), so that more types of images exist, which is not to say they’re any more revealing. Both films underscore how little you can know based on footage of stars or stars in process, footage exemplifying the very concept of self-invention on screens.
This means you’re always aware of Winehouse as a fiction, self- and other-devised, in some sort of control and in none at all. Interviewees discuss her passion and her damage. “She needed music like it was a person,” observes Same Beste, and Yasiin Bey says astutely, “She didn’t know how to be that thing she had been driven to become by her success.” Childhood friends Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert look back on better times and losses, their realizations that she drinking too much or bulimic or taking up heroin with her bad news on-and-off-again boyfriend Blake Fielder-Civil, who appears at one point to pronounce he had been “wasting his time” with her.
It’s a galling moment in a film full of tragedy and dread, always twisted around what you know is coming but isn’t always visible. You might come away with the idea that someone should have saved her from Blake or her dad Mitch, who abandoned the family when Amy was nine and reappeared later (someone in the film observes, “She worshipped the ground he walked on”). Interviews with Mitch or Amy’s mother Janis indicate the tensions you might expect, as well as the reluctance to speak candidly. Janis recalls her inability to stem her young daughter’s rebelliousness (“Oh mum, you’re so soft on me,” she remembers Amy saying, “I can get away with murder”) and Mitch maintains that she had to want to get clean before anyone else could help.
But the images say something else, too, that her descent was visible and drastic, and by extension, that no one did enough. She loses weight, her face gaunt and collarbone ghastly prominent. She staggers around her home in Camden or on stages (her final gig in Belgrade, Serbia is particularly distressing to see again), she rushes from hotel doorways to cabs, harangued by reporters, and she hides away when she can, saying she’s not suffering from “depression” because she can “pick up my guitar for a few minutes and feel better.” When friends suggest she go to rehab but her father says she doesn’t need it in November 2005, Winehouse writes and records “Rehab” and spins into a whole new kind of success orbit, leading to five Grammy awards in 2008, which lead in turn to more addiction, more chaos, and some brutal jokes on US late night TV.
These jokes are just cruel now, knowing what follows, but they speak also to the gaps between experiences and images. As sad as Winehouse’s story may be, Amy is gorgeous and provocative, too. It’s the film’s own great punchline, that as much as you might imagine you’re seeing Winehouse here, you never forget that you’re not.