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Friday, June 26, 2015

I Can See Why Amy Winehouse's Parents Didn't Care For This Documentary

Whenever I hear that a family has tried to put the kibosh on a documentary about a revered celebrity, I can't help it, I am instantly intrigued. What is it that they don't want us to know? What does the film show? So of course, I became obsessed with the thought of a documentary on Amy Winehouse. I mean, as much as I adored her talent (and it still stands among the greatest), much of her troubled personal life played out in the headlines so often that it almost feels like there wouldn't be any more story to tell.

But I figured AMY, directed by Asif Kapadia (Senna), would give us a perspective of her life that we hadn't seen, one that the tabloids overlooked. Guys, after watching the 128-minute film, I can honestly say that I have never seen a documentary that has turned me off so much as this one has. Now I think I understand why Winehouse's parents were so adamant about this film not getting out to the public. It's not just that it's difficult to see Winehouse spiral due to her substance addictions; it's everything from the way it's shot (sketchy camera phone-like, tabloidy) down to its scattered array of strictly audio interviews with her closest friends, boyfriends, business allies (too many of which seem to be extracted from radio and TV programs), along with personal home videos, which seem especially exploitative. It all just looks like it's been slapped together as a school project, not a Cannes Film Festival darling.

Will you learn anything about the soulful songstress from this film? No, not really. Her addiction and romances were heavily documented in the media, so scenes of her falling down on stage and walking around London barefoot after a long night out won't seem like revelations, though they amass much of the film. But what may come off as a surprise to some is how complacent her parents are depicted in the film of her problems--from her undiagnosed bulimia in her adolescence (something with which she suffered the rest of her life) to a particularly brutal drug binge which resulted in her having a seizure. Her parents, despite how lovingly they appear in the film, were portrayed as mere ornaments in Winehouse's life, and less like the emotional edifices she so desperately needed. Either they were passive (her mother is on record as saying that she considered Winehouse's "diet" a "phase"), or they were trying to cash in on her celebrity (her father, who to Winehouse's own admission was absent during one stage of her life due to a long-term extramarital affair, went so far as to crash her much needed vacation and bring a camera crew along with him he says "for a documentary being filmed about him").

What does work in the film is listening to Winehouse talk about what she was going through, through the lyrics of her songs that are scrawled across the screen as we watch her reveal her inner thoughts in footage from her recording sessions and writing retreats. It's an intimate glance at the woman behind the music, something the film so severely needs yet Kapadia decides to focus instead on the sensationalism of her image. As a result, AMY looks at its subject from the point of view of the audience and not from vantage point of neither Winehouse nor anyone who knew her beyond the fame. Painting her as someone who became a product of her own celebrity rather than as a shy, incredibly talented yet destructive teen-turned-young woman is a disservice to both her legacy and the fans who love her. We don't learn anything new about her, and in fact the film creates an even further divide between the artist and the fans who love her.

While it has its moments of close familiarity, AMY plays like a choppy unauthorized biography that has no real narrative or objective. It's uncomfortable to watch in the worst way.

AMY opens in New York and Los Angeles on July 3, and nationwide July 10. For the full list of theaters, click here.

Rating: D (* out of *****)


Brittani Burnham said...

Yikes. This sounds like a mess.

37paddington said...

Thanks for the heads up!

Daniel said...

Really surprised to hear that, a real shame I thought it could have been excellent. Senna was a great documentary which makes this a real head scratcher.

Anonymous said...

Ahhh that's so disappointing that this is such a flop of a doc. After watching Montage of Heck, I had high hopes for this doc too! :( oh well...

Anonymous said...

I don't do this often (because it often comes across as excessively aggressive), but I think the logic you use to back up your dislike of the movie is fundamentally flawed.

Mainly, I think you misunderstand the use of the personal videos throughout "Amy." First of all, criticizing the way it's shot makes little sense because Kapadia assembles the entirety of the visuals from pre-existing footage. While I may dislike the way you put words together to write this review, I am not assigning fault to you for the words themselves. You didn't will them into being, you just used them for your own ends.

In terms of why there are only audio interviews, their purpose is twofold. First, Kapadia said that he found people generally tend to open up more when they do not have to worry about putting on a performance for the camera. Second, the movie is not about Nick Shymansky, or Blake Fielder-Civil, or Mitch Winehouse. It is about Amy Winehouse. Putting their "floating heads," to use a standard documentary term, on screen detracts from Amy's story. It gives them primacy instead of her.

The personal footage is the farthest thing from exploitative and tabloidy. It gives Winehouse a personality and shows who she is beyond the headlines. They give a chance for Winehouse to do in death what she could never do in life - reclaim the narrative and let her vibrant personality shine through. These make her more than just a junkie trainwreck - they allow us to see the tortured human hiding behind the veneer of fame. I firmly reject your assertion that "the film creates an even further divide between the artist and the fans who love her."

It's fine to say that you felt like you learned nothing from the film - that's subjective, after all. But when you twist some facts to suit your opinion, you do the film a disservice.

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