May 18 2015
Biopic is fitting tribute to lost – and some may say squandered – talent but can any artist with such gifts and dark shadows ever live happily and normally? Those at Cannes 2015 got a chance to assess for themselves…
THERE can be little doubt that filmmaker Asif Kapadia has another surefire hit on his hands with “Amy” his very much warts-and-all documentary about the troubled North-London based talent who died in July, 2011, aged just 27.
If not quite as tight or concise as “Senna” (2010) his previous documentary, which won him such acclaim and resurrected his reputation following the stutter that was “Far North” (2007)- not a bad film by any means, but just a little punchless in the greater scheme of things – this will secure more accolades and garlands.
The reaction here in Cannes has been very positive and rightly so – though, there is, on a subjective level, a concern about its overall length.
Firstly the huge positives – it’s a wonderful 360 view of an artist – both at the height of their powers and at their lowest ebb(s).
Kapadia does not hold back and there is a lovely moment, when one of the many narrators of this film, says she gave up one drug…hurrah…only to find crack cocaine. That in some ways was the Amy Winehouse experience.
There are many such affecting moments and the best all come from footage of her early life before fame and adulthood – albeit unhelpfully early in her case – took her away from us.
Underneath it all, she was a beautiful, vulnerable, incredibly talented singer, whose capacity for self-destruction was probably laid crucially and inescapably early on in her life. The lack of a defining parental authority looms large; her mother concedes she was ‘soft’ and her Dad was not much around.
What really marks out the depth of this biopic documentary is the way Kapadia has assembled all the footage and not taken sides and there is plenty from Amy herself on her own predicament.
Okay, Winehouse’s Dad, Mitch, does not come out well, as do some of her boyfriends, but Kapadia is essentially saying it’s neither this, nor that on its own – it’s a damn sight deeper and more complex.
In any examination of such a life, the obvious question is…what drove her to all this? Those quick to find fault with the media on this level will find some sympathy, but it is by no means, the only one.
She was hounded, but she could well have protected herself better – or perhaps the people around her could have been stronger. At one point not too far from the end of her life, she did retreat to a small, Caribbean island and away from the pressures of London, she got better and enjoyed the obscurity of existence most of us have.
But then in something of a telling moment, her father arrives with a documentary film crew in tow. She’s asked to take a picture with a holidaying UK couple and she offers no resistance, but her Dad later berates her for not being more enthusiastic. Her argument that she was okay with the picture but not with her father’s carping, says a lot.
The real issue is that most people wanted their own piece of her – she was too valuable a ‘commodity’ to be left alone or given the time to sort her problems out.
The early voices come through really strongly – her teenage sweetheart and later manager and her best friend…they are the voices of sanity and able to see clearly and differentiate the Amy of old and the Amy of fame, destruction and a struggling capacity to cope.
On the slightly negative side, it is long at just over two hours, a tighter film could have made all the same points but would have been 15-20 minutes shorter and in that slight meandering the excellent conclusion becomes less powerful.
The music is beautiful – how cannot it not be – if anyone sang with heart and soul in the modern era – it was her.
The legendary crooner Tony Bennett calls her one of a kind and compares her to the queens of jazz vocals, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.
There is footage of Bennett and Winehouse doing a duet together – it is priceless. How often do we see the legend and ingénue together and it is clear Winehouse was in total awe of the great singer.
Winehouse makes it clear that she saw herself in the jazz vocal tradition – she was not moved or interested in pop, the charts or money. Only her art mattered. And my, how we miss it too and what she might have gone on to do as a wise old(er) jazz siren.
ACV rating:****(out of five)
*Amy was the subject of a special midnight gala screening at the 68th Cannes Film Festival on May 17