With his Formula 1-themed documentary Senna a few years back, director Asif Kapadia painted a thorough and complex portrait of three-time F1 World Champion Ayrton Senna, a heroic driver cut down in his prime by the talent he had and the industry he so clearly loved.
He does something similar with his latest documentary, focusing this time on the late singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse who died at age just 27, and it’s every bit as compelling and illuminating as his previous film, proving once more that he’s a filmmaker who can jump from subject (matter) with effortless ease.
Using never-before-seen archive footage, photos and deeply personal interviews with family, friends and industry professionals who admired her both from up close and afar – Kapadia makes the brilliant choice to only have them in voice-over rather than the more generic talking heads style appearances – the director paints an at once compassionate, intimate and detailed portrait of the late musician, immersing viewers in her life as a performer and the destructive ways and personal demons that gripped her off-stage.
It’s a film of real openness and honesty, using construct in filmmaking to enlighten rather than to twist words or events – slick editing doesn’t have to mean concealing the truth – and one that instils the feeling that you’ve truly learned something even about a woman that was, not too long ago, all over the national media on a daily basis. And yet despite its utter frankness throughout – there’s footage and photographs towards the end of her physical state that are shocking – it’s also not a film that judges Winehouse for her behaviour but rather giving a tremendously sympathetic view of her life.
Interestingly it shows a different side to the usual self-destructive drug addict behaviour story in that it portrays a group of enablers and or at least those who could see her problems but did little stop it, either through passiveness, being ill-equipped to handle the situation or just plain using it to their advantage/exploiting it; for example, there’s a point where she goes on holiday to St. Lucia to try and get off drugs, her father (who was barely around when she was a kid) shows up with a camera crew for a TV show.
There are shades of light and dark in the film, and the former stops it from being the entirely morose affair that it could have been, but also a feeling that lightness is being stripped away piece by piece and, of being pushed towards a tragic conclusion even if you’re willing it to somehow not be the case, just as it was in the singer’s life itself. It’s also a film that truly celebrates her musical talents, both her voice and her evident lyrical prowess – often visualised with the words appearing on-screen like poems – which saw her go from an ordinary London girl to duetting with her idol Tony Bennett in the space of a few years.
Like Senna before it, Kapadia has managed to make Amy accessible to fans and non-fans alike. Yes, it might hit harder on an emotional level for those who worshiped and adored her but there’s no doubting that this is a universally relatable and tragic story with which anyone can get invested and feel that emotional punch to the stomach once the inevitable strikes towards its conclusion. The titular songstress was a candle that burned twice as bright half as long, and this documentary does an insightful, empathetic and passionate job conveying that.