REVIEW BY JANE FREEBURY
Everyone knew what had happened to her, Amy Winehouse, but many of us may have forgotten how good she was when she started out. The gifted jazz stylist, Tony Bennett likened to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, but substance abuse and bulimia made her a media sensation for all the wrong reasons: hey, watch her going down. Why did this young entertainer with a great voice, retro style and creative potential to burn, leave us so soon? And for her to die at the age of 27, it seemed such a cliché.
It has taken the filmmaker Asif Kapadia, a boy from more or less the same ‘hood in North London, to help us understand what happened to her, even if knowledge and understanding do not necessarily bring peaceful resolution. With his fine documentary he has sensitively and skilfully constructed an engrossing record of the performer’s life, though he never interviewed the singer, never saw her sing live, and they never met. In similar vein to Senna, Kapadia’s doc about Ayrton Senna, the Formula One racing driver who died at 34, this is also a post-mortem.
In the interests of understanding why, it’s good to begin at the beginning. Kapadia makes it the moment caught on home video when as a 14-year-old she sang ‘happy birthday’ to a friend, a lollipop standing in for a mike. A typical mid-teen, by turns shy and precocious, she lets rip with that voice. With a smooth edit, she is the next moment performing in front of the national youth jazz orchestra at age 16. From living room to national stage, and suddenly a star.
Her legacy as a singer-songwriter deserves more of these early years. When she made her first CD, Frank, in 2003 she was appearing all over the place at gigs and on TV, a sassy, breezy, confident girl, on the surface at least, with the nous to know when someone was having a go and the wit to put him/her back in their box. Before she morphed into the celebrity waif, with the 1960s beehive and the winged kohl-black eyes of ancient Egypt.
Then it crumbled away under the sway of the young man who she would marry, and the hard drugs he introduced her to. Although her decline seems to have begun when they met, it seems she was a handful as a youngster and boundaries were an issue. Her mother Janis’ recent book reveals she was ‘Hurricane Amy’ at home.
In time, she seemed to take on the persona in her songs: the woman who suffered in love, who experienced pain and loss, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. True to her lyrics, Winehouse succumbed and lost control of her life.
Amy’s father Mitch also has a book out and his film on his daughter soon will be. The film shows him an opportunist who came back on the scene to capitalise on his daughter’s fame, but we see too little of her mother who had found herself a single mum when Amy was eight. She held more clues to the way Amy was, with her irrepressible, crash-through nature, ‘Hurricane Amy’, and to the kind of woman she would become.
More about the musical influences too. Amy Winehouse didn’t arrive on the scene out of nowhere. She grew up listening to the greats like Frank Sinatra – no wonder she had impeccable timing – as others in her family were into music too.
Like Senna, this doco represents a meticulous forensic examination of a young life cut cruelly short, and a massive research effort. Kapadia and his editor have wrangled everything from home video and mobile footage to audition tapes, studio recordings and TV live chat shows, bringing them together into a coherent narrative.
The film’s second half is full of paparazzi material showing her helpless or is it unresisting as the media jackals film her demise, and her death from alcohol poisoning/heart failure has a sad inevitability about it. It’s hard not to feel, on her behalf, indignation and dismay at it all.