Monday, July 20, 2015

Movie Review: "Amy" (2015)

© A24

Never before have I seen a more lazy documentary about such a compelling subject. The first in-depth film about the late Amy Winehouse, whose tragic—though sadly not unexpected—death at 27 in July 2011 was preceded by a series of very telling events, beginning in the singer's childhood. Amy collects unseen and unheard recordings of Amy before her rise to fame as she struggled to find her way through the unwanted attention she eventually received. Interviews with her family, friends, and colleagues provide a narration of sorts as the details of her private life are revealed, many for the first time.

The main point of the film gets mucky from the start, as it tries to be about the music by peppering every other shot with song lyrics like it were a Vevo lyric video. It's as if director Asif Kapadia thought we wouldn't understand the gravity or complexity of this woman's genius without hearing it through a song or reading it blatantly written on screen. All of Winehouse's songs are deeply autobiographical, and the documentary takes advantage of that, using it as a storytelling crutch in order to avoid doing any actual investigative work. It completely lacks creativity.

The style is admittedly unique, but that doesn't mean it's good. It's noticeable right away: floating narrations (i.e. no "talking head" interviews), which is a strange, though signature, choice for Kapadia. You get the sense that he was afraid to cut away from Amy for even a second, for fear that the audience might feel something he didn't intend. We never once see anyone speaking about Amy. The editing is choppy, and the film felt exhausting as a result. While the story is laid out logically (read: chronologically), the editing choices are terrible. Within the first minute, there were sound balance issues, the music and voice over tracks rarely laying together well.

It is clear that Kapadia was in no way unbiased. Winehouse's father, Mitch, is a big focus of the film and he is villianized to the point where hatred seeped from my pores. The documentary team created a heavy-handed portrayal of the man who, according to them, was practically the sole cause of Amy's failings. This might only be rivaled by the footage of ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, who is equally derided. Dramatic though it may be, it is irresponsible. Amy's evolution not just as an artist, but as a person, is dimmed, taking a back seat to tempestuous hearsay and marred by grainy cellphone footage. No wonder Amy's family came out against the final version of the film as "unbalanced," when they'd originally provided all of the never-before-seen footage and given interviews in support of telling an honest story.

The issue here isn't really that Mr. Winehouse comes off as an evil money-hungry monster, though it doesn't help. It's that the film itself manipulates us into believing it without providing us the opportunity to see a different perspective. By not allowing us to see the interviewees, their emotions (even their static pauses) are invisible. Kapadia can then edit in tragic, slow-motion footage of a gaunt, sickly Amy underneath audio of Mitch or her promoter or [insert name here] speaking about "the next gig" or the "next album"—Wow! So insensitive, can't they see she's sick?!?!! The documentary certainly wants you to think they didn't care, which couldn't possibly have been true, no matter how compelled we are to believe it.

The upsetting thing is that even though I hated so much about how this story was told, I'd watch it again in a second. Amy's story is so tragic and she's a fascinating subject, and she still is, despite the film's many flaws—it's impossible not to be moved by her. Where the documentary momentarily succeeds is in the closing sequences leading up to the singer's death. Touching commentary from her closest childhood friends shows us a glimpse of the human being behind the tabloids, and behind the music. We already knew so much about what Kapadia was showing us. It was the stories being told by his interview subjects that should have taken precedence of everything else. Even at the end, we're manipulated into feeling that we all did something wrong, that we were responsible in some distant, perverse way for Amy's unraveling. Again, a lazy thematic approach that distracted from her accomplishments and contributions.

This is not the quintessential Amy Winehouse documentary that many critics have been declaring. Definitely not in the way that Montage of Heck was for Kurt Cobain. Better will certainly come, someday, because Winehouse deserves it.

Rating: ★★ / 5 stars

1 comment:

  1. 2015 is shaping up to be the year of docudramas. Steve Jobs, Amy...


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