Amy Winehouse documentary at Panorama: 'Love is in some ways killing me'

Walt Curnow, Thursday 3 Dec 2015

The 2015 documentary Amy, about the fallen star Amy Winehouse, screens as part of the Panorama of the European Film

(Photo: still from Amy)

Asif Kapadia's 128-minute 2015 documentary Amy on the life of the late artist Amy Winehouse, which screens during this year's Panorama of the European Film, is worth the time.

It is not a story that you do not know the ending of. You know the soundtrack, and you also know the main character. How her life ended is well-known, as is her musical career in which she only released two albums. But what makes it unique is the boldness, the extensiveness and how clearly it shows what is wrong with so many things to do with the music and mass media industry and how it can accelerate the downfall of someone so easy to sell to the masses.    

"The jazz artist doesn't want 50,000 people in front of them"    

The documentary is the widely known story of a talented girl as well as the tragic death of a 27-year-old woman. 

The film is an almost comprehensive recording of Amy's life, though it leaves enough doubt for the viewer to make their own judgments about how good or bad some relationships may have been for her. It is a compilation of old home-made videos, footage from mobile phones, paparazzi shots and live concerts. 

The documentary reveals the complexities of a girl who was always extremely talented and often prepared to be the centre of attention, at least around close friends and family. But it also depicts a character that was often awkward – at times even shy – and someone who was in part ultimately destroyed by a celebrity culture that fed into and enhanced her self-destruction and found more interest in her abuse and faults than in the best that she had to offer. 

Poignantly, the singer Tony Bennett, who was an idol of hers as she was growing up, recorded a song with her in the studio towards the end of her career and life, with this scene coming at the end of the documentary. He says, from experience, that she will go down in history as one of the jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday. He acts fatherly and calmly as Amy struggles to find the passion to sing at the standard she needs to in collaboration with her idol. She apologises to him for wasting his time when she can't find her voice.

"If I really thought I was famous I'd go and top myself or something"

Winehouse's fame clearly came at a price. Throughout the documentary she could look the camera straight in the eye, make personal jokes, slag off a friend or family member or be prepared to look her worst or ugliest. She was loved by those that knew her well – her family, boyfriends and those who worked with her professionally – and she seemed to nearly always appreciate their presence. Friends, family and her staff all said that she could put them in the centre of her world and just as quickly, and perhaps cruelly, shut them out. 

However, as her fame reached astronomical heights – with front page shots on Rolling Stone, the Daily Telegraph and appearances on David Letterman and winning a Grammy award – her self-abuse spiralled out of control. The footage shows her almost cowering at times, and hiding from the sky-lighting up when hundreds of paparazzi try to take her shot.

Amy once said "If I really thought I was famous I'd go and top myself or something. It's frightening. Do you know what I mean? It's a scary thing. Very scary."

The documentary's strength is that it is able to collate moments from throughout her life which leave the viewer with the strong impression that her sad trajectory started when she was quite young. By the time she is an adolescent, she says on camera at different times that both of her parents never supported her as much as she needed. Personal relationships – especially that with her boyfriend and later husband Blake Fielder-Civil – were self-destructive and accelerated her downfall.


The documentary is also a warning or cautionary tale to what the media and mega-music industry can do to a single human being. American and English talk show hosts, comedians and the media took cruel aim at Winehouse when it was clear that she had a problem with drug abuse and bulimia. The documentary is interspersed with shots of journalists and paparazzi hit squads more interested in portraying a drug addict, sixties-ish rock star, possible 27-club mythological creature, relationship problem addled cliché than what Winehouse herself created and actually said through her music and lyrics.

“Love is in some ways killing me”

The documentary is very bold and her family members, friends, partners and colleagues should be credited for being so frank and revealing with what were, at least initially, personal issues. Amy’s father, Mitchell, criticised this documentary for not portraying him fairly, and it is certainly true that his role in his daughter’s life is not glossed over. Amy says herself that she didn’t receive enough attention from him at a young age. There is an embarrassing scene for Mitchell towards the end of the documentary when Amy is in St Louis trying to escape crack-cocaine, heroin and hordes of fans and mass media.

At a time when Amy clearly needed human and simple affection, her father turned up with photographers and a camera crew so he could make his own documentary about her. Perhaps it is understandable that a father would feel unfairly shown in a documentary about his daughter whose life ended so badly. But it is to the director Kapadia's credit that he does show scenes that don’t show people in a flattering light. What needs to be stressed the most about this film is that no one is innocent. Amy herself is not shown as without fault. There were external reasons that she lost control, sure, but it does not depict her as angelic. Her long-time partner Blake is also shown complexly. They both clearly loved each other but he also admits that they were both addicted to their own self-destruction, and hence each other.

Amy will be screened on Friday 4 December on 6.45pm
Zawya, (Odeon Cinema) 4 Abdel-Hamid Said Street, off Talaat Harb Street, Downtown, Cairo

Check Panorama's programme here
 and Ahram Online recommendations here.

Ahram Online is the main media sponsor of The Panorama of the European Film and of Zawya

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