New Amy Winehouse biopic is a raw but real expose of Camden musician’s tragic life


- Credit: Archant

Asif Kapadia’s documentary, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival, unearths old photos of a younger Amy and footage of her performing live.

Best known for his acclaimed 2010 documentary Senna about the late Formula One driver, Asif Kapadia’s bittersweet biopic Amy, premiering in Cannes, introduces the Camden Town jazz singer as a “North London Jewish girl with a lot of attitude”, who loved to write poetry and lyrics.

Unearthing a treasure trove of photos, home movie footage and demos from over 100 interviews with those closest to her, he shows Winehouse as a witty, down to earth and “gobby” girl with a rich, velvety voice, who never wanted to be famous but whose inadvertent stardom let to her tragic death, aged 27.

When they performed together towards the end of her life, the legendary Tony Bennett described her as “a natural, true jazz singer,” comparing her to Ella Fitzgerald; while Amy’s own role models were Billie Holliday and Thelonius Monk.

Kapadia’s raw and real exposé has not gone down well with her family or father Mitch. And it’s easy to see why. No dad wants to witness a full and frank account of his daughter’s personal life - straight from the mouths of friends and lovers - however truthful this may be.

But Kapadia never stands in judgement of the singer’s life, telling her story simply and sensitively as it unfolds.

Winehouse herself admits “My dad was never there.” But as her career prospered, Mitch is seen becoming more exploitatively involved, when all she had ever wanted was a supportive male figure whom she could love unconditionally.

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Kapadia does not attempt a psychological analysis. It is Amy who confesses how music became her refuge and means of expressing inner turmoil.

This visually vibrant, often shocking film unspools in a straightforward fashion: Amy’s teenage years singing in the National Youth Jazz orchestra after a middle-class childhood deeply affected by her parent’s split and father’s departure, only to return again. Her gradual rise to fame and riches, voiced by various musical collaborators Nick Shymansky, Mark Ronson, Raye Cosbert and Salaam Remi (there are no talking heads), her obsessive relationship with a self-seeking Blake Fielder-Civil for whom she confesses “unconditional love” after her spectacular fall from grace.

They were desperately in love but toxically inseparable, alienating their close friends. Honeymoon footage shows them blissfully happy on a speedboat in Miami, but eventually Blake is seen denouncing Amy for her lack of interest in his life.

This was clearly another crushing blow. Tearful girlfriends talk of her phoning to say “Sorry”, for her behaviour shortly before the end. At the depths of her career, photos show her hollowed features and emaciated figure and she appears dazed and confused.

Chat show hosts who welcomed her interviews are later seen openly deriding her afflictions: proof of the fickle nature of fame.

But there are upbeat moments celebrating her poignant vocals and seductive singing style in performances of “Stronger Than Me’, ‘Back to Black’ and ‘Frank’; her defiant hit ‘Rehab’ contrasts sharply with her negative views on celebrity in her ordinary North London speaking voice, that Jonathan Ross jokingly describes as “common”.

The film vaunts her exotic beauty, raven locks and emerald eyes blinking suggestively in her signature eye-liner as she poses sensuously at the microphone, then playfully screwing up her features in irritation as an inane female interviewer goes on to her about Dido.

Kapadia’s respectful and polished documentary shows the glory and the tragedy of this vulnerable, gifted young woman, saddened by her parent’s split, sullied by drugs and alcohol yet utterly candid and convincing. Amy’s life may be an unfinished symphony but she leaves an enduring musical legacy.

Meredith Taylor is the Editor of online film magazine

The Cannes Film Festival runs until May 24.