Amy charts singer's tragic path
Brandishing a lollipop like a cigarette, 14-year-old Amy Winehouse belts out "Happy Birthday." It's unexpected, initially bursting from outside the camera frame, but once the lens found her it would refuse to let go.
Deeply unhappy in the final years of her life, the jazz siren stumbled through sets blearily drunk, a wreck with a whiskey drawl that couldn't be covered up by substance. At 27, the London native had two LPs under her belt: 2003 debut Frank, detailing her illustrious romance with an older man, and 2006's Back to Black, an at times heart-wrenching musing on lost love. The tortured diva, whose every move drew what seemed like a thousand camera flashes, succumbed to alcohol poisoning in July 2011.
In America, which got a taste of Frank four years after its UK release, the flameout appeared to make sense on the surface; we'd only seen the beehive and toothpick-thin limbs. But another Londoner, filmmaker Asif Kapadia (2010's Senna), found himself consumed with not simply her death, but the rugged path she'd stumbled down to get there. Amy, the resulting two-hour documentary, in theatres this week, follows the descent.
"One of the differences between a feature film and a doc – it's all about twists and turns and how you'll end it," Kapadia told the Chronicle. "Whereas here, I know how it ended, I just don't understand the journey. It all becomes about that journey. I haven't met a person who hasn't heard of Amy. So it's always about: When did you jump on that train? When were you aware of her?"
In carefully woven footage, Winehouse's ascent unfolds from the raw talent of a teenager, to the calculated raunch of Frank, then eventually the hip-hop-infused follow-up that propelled her to mainstream success. Early film of the sheepish singer devolves into a media swarm which molests both subject and audience mercilessly.
"My job is to make you feel this intense, visceral ... to be honest, it's not a nice feeling to be photographed and attacked like that," Kapadia said. "[It's] to make you feel attacked. For us to be her. So I'm glad you felt like that, because it was an awful situation. It was like that every day – everywhere she went. Why wouldn't you want to numb the pain of having to exist like that?"
The director, who admits that during Winehouse's life he was inevitably "caught up in the music," completed around 100 interviews (including now-controversial ones with the singer's family), all the while connecting important moments in her life to the lyrics in her songs. Serving to introduce key themes throughout the film, the excerpts form a posthumous narration.
"Every time, I'd go back to the songs and say, 'That's what she was talking about,'" Kapadia recounted. "What is this song about? What does this mean? It became very important that the lyrics became front and center. I wanted people to listen to the songs in a different way. You have to pay attention. And the song you know, that you've heard a hundred times, suddenly has a different meaning.
"It's a bit like a detective story," he continued. "Making a film was trying to unravel her life. We all thought we knew her, but we didn't. Nobody knew everything."