Earlier this year the Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck struggled to navigate the difficult task of having something new to say about a story that was already familiar to most of its audience. The first half of the film was pretty successful on that end, creating an impressionistic view of Cobain through a highly energetic montage that tried its damnedest to portray him as a regular dude instead of a rock god. The movie fell apart for me in the back half, though, when its preference for raw footage over actual information became much less compelling as Cobain nodded off into a life (and death) of heroin addiction. In my original review I wrote “In a lot of ways this mirrors Cobain’s actual life: a burst of creative energy stopped short & made less special by substance abuse. As an anti-drug PSA, Montage of Heck is pretty damn effective, but as a documentary it’s very thin on the information end, so when it loses its momentum to heroin addiction, there’s not much else to hold onto,” a sentiment I still feel holds true.
The Amy Winehouse documentary had a much less familiar story to work with than Montage of Heck (less familiar to me, at least), so it more or less got away with playing its material straight. All I knew of Winehouse going into the film was the shape of her hair, the single “Rehab”, and her history of substance abuse. It turns out her & Cobain’s lives were remarkably similar in a lot of ways, although her talent was cut short even sooner than his. There’s nothing particularly flashy about the way Amy tells its subject’s life story. With the exception of a couple details that are withheld until late in the film, her story is pretty much laid out here in an exactly linear progression. There’s some context of her upbringing early in the film & then a year by year recap of her too-fast rise to stardom, followed by a deeply sad unraveling & list of what-could’ve-beens. What’s interesting about the film is not exactly how the story is told, but more of what goes unsaid. Much like with Cobain, Winehouse was not built for fame & mass attention emotionally, so it becomes apparent throughout the film that the audience (including those of us at the cinema at that very moment) played just as much of a part in her demise as the three men the movie explicitly points a finger at (her greedy father, her junkie ex-husband, and her shady tour manager).
This lack of stylistic flourish makes Amy an aesthetically ugly film in an (also unspoken) way that draws attention to Winehouse’s relationship to class. Cheap digital photographs & short clips of Winehouse joking with friends & shooting pool are very much uncinematic, especially when they clash with the crisp drone shots that establish setting & act as chapter breaks. Winehouse was a working class girl with a inordinate amount of talent for singing & writing songs. She states plainly through interviews & home video that she does not want mass attention & that if she becomes famous she will likely kill herself. Winehouse’s ideal career was to sing to small crowds in jazz clubs & small-scale festivals, not to drown in a sea of screaming fans that desperately want to hear her every word just as much as they want to pick apart & ridicule her personal life. By the time Winehouse is famous in Amy, it’s disturbing how much the imagery of the film changes. It jumps from humble home photographs, mostly of Winehouse acting camera-shy, to an intense onslaught of high quality paparazzi footage that makes a spectacle out of the simplest of things like a walk down the street & much more personal moments, like the struggle to kick her heroin habit. It’s incredible that Amy didn’t come with an epilepsy warning, considering the strobe effect of the paparazzi cameras, which were disorienting to me even in brief glimpses. I can’t even imagine what it was like for her to deal with that every moment she was outside her house.
Speaking of the paparazzi footage, that was easily the element of the film that I found most haunting. Not only did photographers (as well as comedians & talking heads) make a literal killing off of exploiting Winehouse while she was still alive, but because the footage was valuable to telling her story, those snapshots are still making money today merely by appearing in the documentary. One shot of her estranged best friend weeping at her funeral particularly stuck with me. Someone filmed that intimate moment without permission & sold it to a publisher, who then printed it for a profit and now can sell it a second time for the purposes of a documentary. Again, although the active parties are obviously skeezy for doing this, there’s an unspoken implication that the audience is largely to blame as well. By giving so much attention to a person who obviously did not want it, Winehouse’s unwitting fans made a market out of her gradual death. Again, it’s very similar to what slowly killed Kurt Cobain as well & I’m sure there are to be more examples in the future.
A lot of what makes Amy interesting as a documentary is not necessarily the details of Winehouse’s personal life that it turns into a fairly straight-forward narrative, but rather the way it subtly makes you feel like a murderer for wanting those details in the first place. As I mentioned before, there are several people that the movie scolds for not doing something to save her while they still had a chance, but the audience is far from innocent on that account either. While a real life person was hurting & intentionally destroying herself in the public eye, she was met with jokes at her expense instead of sympathy. She was booed offstage & harassed by the press, despite the blatant signs that something wasn’t right. It’s a disgusting instinct, but it’s also powerful enough to support a market. Even now, years after her death, we’re still giving her more attention than she ever wanted. It’s difficult to shake that feeling while watching her hide her face & drink herself numb in a documentary that continues the very thing it’s condemning.