We all think we know the story of Amy Winehouse – a staggeringly gifted teenage singer/songwriter makes waves on the jazz scene, rises meteorically after the recording of breakthrough album Back To Black, then plunges into a tragic downward spiral fuelled by addiction to drugs and alcohol. And yes, that’s pretty much what we get in Amy. But director Asif Kapadia allows us to see her story through fresh eyes, to fully appreciate what a tragic waste of talent was here. Kapadia’s approach (as with his much acclaimed motor racing doc, Senna) is to painstakingly assemble an intricate collage of material from every stage of his subject’s life, incorporating interviews with all the major players in her story, from those who evidently loved and cherished her to those who fed shamelessly on her rising star and hitched it to their own particular wagon. It’s a labour of love that took three years to assemble.
It’s all here, from grainy home movie footage of a young Amy, already displaying exceptional talent as she performs Happy Birthday for her best friend, a lithe fresh-faced Amy performing brilliantly in the intimate setting of a jazz club, to the tragic scene of her stumbling onstage at a massive outdoor festival, drunk and unwilling to perform a single note. Through the course of the film, heroes and villains inevitably emerge. Original manager Nick Shymansky clearly worshipped the ground she walked on, but had to step aside when she demanded that he leave his employer, Simon Fuller, to concentrate on her. Bessie mate, Juliette Ashby was clearly always there to fight her corner, no matter what she had done. Her husband Blake Fielder-Civil professes he only had her best interests at heart, but with every word reveals himself as an opportunistic freeloader – and the less said about Amy’s father, Mitch, the better. A scene where he brings a camera crew to the remote holiday island she has fled to, (mostly because of unwelcome press intrusion), is frankly one of the film’s most shocking moments. Mitch has loudly complained that the documentary has ‘stitched him up’ but the truth is right up there on the screen, for all to see. And then, of course, there’s the paparazzi. Scenes of Amy fleeing from a pack of rabid cameramen amidst a blizzard of flash photography, make the hackles rise and almost instil a sense of shame that we belong to the same species as these creatures. How can they live with themselves? Didn’t they realise they were hounding her to her own destruction?
A word about the venue. Home has taken over from the Cornerhouse as Manchester’s home for independent cinema (as well as boasting two theatres, several bars, exhibition space and a cafe) and what a fine job it’s doing! It has five state-of-the-art screens with prices far more reasonable than the multiplexes and the friendliest staff I’ve ever encountered. This special showing took place in the spacious setting of Cinema One (air conditioned – a blessing on one of the hottest days of the year) and was followed by a Q and A with co-producer George Pank. Annoyingly, a pressing engagement elsewhere precluded us from actually staying on for this, but it’s hard to know what it might have added. Any questions we may have had about the career of Amy Winehouse are answered comprehensively in this brilliant, hard-hitting and ultimately heartbreaking documentary. Don’t you dare miss it.