When presenting a tragedy in documentary form, whether it be a case study of a tragic life which ended too soon, or the relaying of an event in which many people lost their lives, the only way that the story can be successfully told is if the film-maker remains as objective as possible and shows us the events in a fair and unbiased way. The audience is there to make up their own minds about the information which is presented to them, and Amy fails on this at the first hurdle.
Instead, we are treated to the utter demonization of Amy Winehouse’s father, Mitch Winehouse, and ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil. This demonization comes in the form of excessively repeated instances of ominous music played over slowed-down footage of a shifty-looking Mitch (who may as well have ‘NEGLECTFUL FATHER’ stamped across his forehead) and close-ups of Blake’s drug-addled, mottled face, whilst Amy’s lyrics float across the screen, like sad little symbols of foreshadowing.
That’s not to say that they had no part in her demise, but the fact that their contribution to the unfolding of such tragic events has essentially been made into a film is troubling. And misses the point. Winehouse was such a pure and magnetic talent (who ‘should be regarded along with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday’, as Tony Bennett puts it at the end of the film), yet the juxtaposition of this talent with a life of depression, drug addiction and alcoholism should have been handled with much more sensitivity and much less finger-pointing.
In fact, Amy’s music and rise to fame almost seems to be happening in the background of this film, and we only really get to marvel at, and celebrate, the purity and uniqueness of her talent in the film’s opening, through recordings of early-on performances. Once Amy moves to Camden and encounters Blake, Asif Kapadia chooses to almost exclusively focus on (and sensationalise) her breakdown, in the same way that the paparazzi did when she was alive. And although he doesn’t explicitly state whose fault Amy’s drug addiction was, we get Blake shakily admitting to introducing drugs to Amy in a voice-over interview, and so Kapadia oh-so-gently nudges us to blame him.
If we compare this to the recent Kurt Cobain biopic Montage of Heck, which presents a similar story, you could take the feeling of unease which Brett Morgen’s documentary musters and multiply that by about twenty. At least Montage made some effort to remain impartial by taking an amalgamation of home footage and interviews and putting it on the screen in (what seemed like) a sincere and tasteful way. Even Courtney Love came out of it looking OK. Amy feels more like the unofficial trial of Mitch and Blake with a jazzy soundtrack accompaniment.
Never have I seen a documentary which completely jettisons subtlety in favour of sensationalism, and the exploitation of the audience’s emotion, to such an extent. Even watching the film purely to appreciate Winehouse’s talent is a waste of time, because by the end you will feel so uncomfortable that you probably won’t want to hear another Amy Winehouse song for quite a while.