In the documentary film Truth or Dare, Madonna and actor Warren Beatty famously get into a bit of a spat, and Beatty sarcastically remarks that Madonna doesn't want to live off-camera. "Why do anything off-camera," he asks. "What would be the point of that?" While his indictment of Madonna's quest for fame and exposure seemed to reflect his age and show just how out of touch he was, perhaps the old timer's criticisms of her exhibitionist-like tendencies have some merit. We live in a time when everyone seemingly wants to be famous and everyone wants to be on camera. But fame has an ugly side, and that's something that comes across loud and clear in Amy, director Asif Kapadia's (Senna) documentary about British soul singer Amy Winehouse. It opens area-wide on Friday.
Throughout the course of her career, Winehouse struggled to stay out of the public eye. Winehouse's relationship with the mass media was more like that of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain. She wanted to sing. She wanted people to hear her sing. She didn't want to be famous. In grappling with the loss of privacy (there's even the hint that the British tabloids were illegally tapping her phone conversations), she struggled with substance abuse and an eating disorder before she passed away in 2011. In one clip, she even freezes up in front of a festival audience and simply can't perform.
Director Kapadia adroitly chronicles the singer's rise and fall. The film's strength lies in its ability to spin a narrative without any sort of voiceover. Documentaries of this nature often rely on an outside voice to give the film a certain structure. But Amy succeeds without it. The film starts by showing how Winehouse hired young Nick Shymanksy to manage her. She was just a teenager but had already generated some label interest thanks to her soulful, woozy voice, which recalls jazz greats such as Billie Holiday. From there, her fame escalated. She isn't a compelling live performer, but Kapadia does the best he can to include some of the better clips of her singing songs such as "Rehab." The best footage, however, comes from performances in the studio. Even if she was singing in a make-shift vocal booth, she could really give an emotional performance. In one scene with Tony Bennett, we see how vulnerable she could be as she gushes with praise for the man.
The Winehouse family, which cooperated in the making of the film, has subsequently distanced itself from the movie, claiming it inaccurately portrays the singer's life. It's hard to see how that's possible since Kapadia aims for objectivity (he interviewed about 100 people in the course of making the movie) and doesn't pass judgment on her or her family (the film does include footage of her father attempting to make his own movie, an act that comes off as rather opportunistic).
The one liberty that Kapadia takes is that he manipulates the footage of flashbulbs flickering in Winehouse's face as she exits her home and/or various hotel rooms. It's as if he wants to make them seem more blinding than they really are. Those are the only heavy-handed moments in an otherwise even-handed examination of the life and death of a pop star who tragically died just as she was hitting her stride.