The history of pop music is filled with far too many untimely demises. But for all the cultural lumping together of these tragedies, they’re hardly as similar as we tend to believe.
In “Amy,” a new documentary about the late musician Amy Winehouse, we learn just how unique and complicated a descent can be.
That narrative helped the film earn a warm reception from critics and audiences at the Cannes Film Festival, where it premiered ahead of a July release in theaters, though the portrayal turned out to sit not nearly as well with some of those closest to its subject.
Winehouse was, of course, the preternaturally talented singer-songwriter. She won accolades for her debut, “Frank,” when she was barely 20 and was considered a budding soul great just three years later, in 2006, with her Grammy-winning “Back to Black.” But she would never record another studio album, and died in 2011, at age 27, from alcohol poisoning.
Directed by fellow Londoner Asif Kapadia, the film paints a portrait of Winehouse that goes well beyond the rise and fall stories of other music-world tragic figures. Yes, there were enablers, such as ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, who said in a 2013 interview that he introduced her to hard drugs. (She became convinced, one friend says in the film, that she had to be “on his level.”).
And Winehouse’s father, Mitch, is presented unflatteringly in “Amy” as a hard-driving, self-glorifying stage parent who pushed his daughter to keep performing even when it was clear she needed help.
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But the nuanced argument “Amy” makes is that a broader set of cultural factors was also culpable in her undoing. Winehouse was subject to a relentless stream of late-night television jokes, paparazzi stalking, social-media snarking and tabloid drooling, and it soon overwhelmed her.
“It was a situation where she’d be a guest on a show one night and then mocked on that show the next, or where a lot of people were participating in what became a kind of sport,” Kapadia said at Cannes. “And that’s one of the main things I wanted to accomplish. I want people to walk out feeling a little angry and a little complicit and a little guilty.”
Kapadia became involved after Winehouse’s record company approached James Gay-Rees, the director’s producing partner, with an idea to tell Winehouse’s story. The executives were taken with Kapadia’s earlier film, the race-car documentary “Senna,” and wanted a similar in-depth treatment.
As with that film, “Amy” relies on a trove of candid footage to tell an urgent story. Kapadia’s general approach is to forgo talking heads in favor of archival material. In this film he did have to rely on interviews (the production conducted more than 100 of them) but Kapadia uses only audio, and layers the voices over the footage so the documentary seems to be narrated as events are happening instead of reflected upon later.
There is plenty of time, especially early in the film, devoted to Winehouse’s luminous personality — an opening sequence made up of home-video footage shows her taking over a gathering of friends with a star’s charm and assurance, effortlessly channeling Marilyn Monroe.
And there’s much that demonstrates her musical acumen. Winehouse wrote lyrics to many of her songs in longhand, and Kapadia puts snippets of them on screen. He also superimposes text of some of her more personal lyrics over her performances, in a way that both moves the narrative forward and underscores her talent.
But the tale soon turns dark as Winehouse begins withdrawing, physically and emotionally, into her addiction. The film chronicles this in part by showing the reaction of family, friends and her representatives — all saying, basically, it wasn’t on them to do more.
That includes Mitch Winehouse, who — though a figure Amy Winehouse clearly adored and felt close to — did, at a moment when she seemed to need rest or rehab, appear to push her to do more shows.
That depiction has led to strong objections from the Winehouse family, which initially co-operated with the production but shortly before Cannes released a statement saying that they’d like to “disassociate themselves from the forthcoming film about their much missed and beloved Amy.”
The statement added that the family believed the film “is both misleading and contains some basic untruths.”
In a subsequent interview with the Guardian, Mitch Winehouse elaborated that “they are trying to portray me in the worst possible light” and noted that the film suggested he didn’t think Winehouse needed to go to rehab generally, when a comment he made to that effect was about a specific and more healthy moment in her life — an “at that time,” he said, was edited out.
For their part, the filmmakers said they had no ax to grind.
“I know it’s too soon for some people,” Kapadia said. “I do want people to see everyone for who they were, and have a form of debate about the world we live in and what we do to people. I’m not trying to make anyone look bad.”
Gay-Rees said one reason he believes “Amy” is evoking such intense emotions has less to do with the portrayal than the facts.
“It’s a really complicated story with no good guys or bad guys,” he said by phone from London on Thursday. “Even Amy herself was a complicated, contradictory character. She didn’t present the same way to any two people. We’d interview one person and they’d say she was the most unbelievably attentive caring soul, and then someone else would say she was a hard-core gangster.”
One of the biggest questions Winehouse’s legacy raises — whether her compulsions were inextricable from her creativity — remains ambiguous in the film.
Gay-Rees said he believed she was someone “who had all this talent and lightning strikes going, but she had to have chaos in her life and possibly couldn’t be a great artist without it.”
Kapadia said it’s a question he still struggles with. “I don’t think I can offer simple answers,” he said. “I just want people to look at someone who is so funny and so intelligent and so sharp. And I do want all of us, a little bit, to look at what we did.”