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Amy - Film Review

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by Emu Byron (subscribe)
writer in English, French and Spanish with published credits available in government publications, local and ethnic media. I live in Sydney.
Published July 6th 2015

If you know Amy, then you've probably accepted the passing of her fate and laid her to rest. If you don't know Amy, then this film will hurt; like experiencing a sudden awakening followed by an equally sudden and irreparable loss.

This may not be surprising, given the nature of the subject, and that of its peculiar director, Asif Kapadia, with a penchant for tragic subjects bound for doom in a blaze of glory. Thus, before he did "Amy", he did "Senna" (2010), about Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian Formula 1 Racing car driver, whom some regarded as the world's greatest (and others the most handsome), until his fatal crash of May 1994.

Choice of subject is not however the only thing that makes this director peculiar. This is a director who doesn't direct, not even with script. Rather, he edits and collates from a seemingly endless supply of private home movies, personal phone video footage, and public media. Since this manner of proceeding depends on the agreement of the original holders of archive, the end result can be regarded as 'collaborative', with a rather 'naturalistic' style, and the further peculiarity that the themes are not supplied by any individual, but by life itself, as provided by the determinism of individual psychologies, the content of circumstances, and the inevitable outcomes that might or might not have been averted, all captured digitally.

A few minutes into the viewing and my wife leans over to whisper in my ear "This is 'Janis Joplin' in the 'digital'era". I get the oblique reference but it is too early in the viewing to seize its full import. After the movie, I look around to see what other writers have said and come across the exact same thought from Paul Byrnes of the Sydney Morning Herald: "When Jimmy Hendrix died at the age of 27, in September 1970, in London, there were no mobile phones".

Together, these divergeant yet converging statements tell you what Kapadia's movie, "Amy", is about: It is about vocalic greatness; about an extraordinary fame and fortune with the power to draw humankind like a moth to the fire of its flame, and just as quickly burn out; about (dare I say it?) the shadow of the '27 Club', which weighs heavily over this film (Jones, Morrison, Hendrix, Joplin, Colbain); and about the unprecedented manner of looking at these themes through the multifaceted eye of "the fly" (the metaphor employed by U2 to describe the ubiquitous power of electronic media in the 21st Century).

Yet the movie is about all of these things solely because it is about Amy Jade Winehouse, the diminutive giantess of British Jazz ballads, born in 1983, signed up to a record label by age 16, five-time Grammy Award winner by 23, dead at 27 – it is Amy in every frame, and anyone who transits through them, other than her, does so In relation only to Amy.

This relentless focus, lasting 90 minutes, tells you something of the director's attitude towards his subject. If you don't know Amy, then he wants you to get to know her. As Russell Brand chronicled elsewhere, this is a jaw-dropping experience:

"… When I first met her around Camden, she was just some twit in a pink satin jacket hanging around bars with some mutual friends… It was only by chance that I ever saw her live… I saw Amy on stage with Weller and his band; and then the awe. The awe that envelops when witnessing a genius. From her oddly dainty presence that voice, a voice that seemed not to come from her but from beyond even Billie and Ella, from the font of all greatness…" ['Russell Brand on Amy Winehouse' - The Guardian 25 July 2011]

"From beyond Billie and Ella" and "The font of all greatness" does it for me nicely, as I sat in the theatre recalling Oletta Adams, Edith Piaf, and thinking "no, no, no, she is greater than these" (but how could that be?).

Given the weighty import of the matter, but inadvertently, since life doesn't judge, Kapadia's film may also be about blame. Judgments are drawn out, sometimes invited, by some of the people caught in the frames who were part of the drama unfolding. One telling comment concerns the business aspect of the tragedy, with its warped understanding of 'duty': "... Everyone knew there was a problem, but all may have been looking for a solution that would not interfere with the financials…"

Yet life doesn't judge, only audiences do, and it is clear, if you follow closely the suite of images overdubbed with audio, interviews, and subtitled with the lyrics of her songs, that part of the tragic mechanism involved in her demise resided in Amy herself. She was one of those artists who use the raw material of their own individual life experiences to create their art, a "subjective" artist, perhaps the most vulnerable and tragic that there is. There were clear indications that that life was troubled, involving bulimia, a dyonisiac capacity for excess without limits, and hints of a weak mother figure and absent father who in the exception, might have helped her blithe spirit to provide some structure for itself; the irony being, for no tragic mechanism is complete without irony, that she was so good at these alchemical transmutations that her art only got better as her life got worse.

Another aspect of the tragedy, and an insightful comment into the whole "27 Club syndrome", comes from Tony Bennett, the ageless American crooner with whom she did a duet, months only before her death: "Life teaches you how to live it, if you live long enough".

Sadly, Amy Winehouse didn't. And that's what will hurt you about this movie.

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When: Now showing
Where: In cinemas
Your Comment
The documentary movie was great, Amy was better. As you say anyone shouldn't judge her, and in any case, the life which unfortunately, it did. It's another example about how more painfull you get, the stronger you become, but sometimes that is so hard and it overcome the forces. Good review ;)
by g.dia (score: 0|4) 695 days ago
Good review Emu, saw the film and felt very much the same.Marina
by Marina Marangos (score: 2|595) 1196 days ago
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