November 7, 2015

They say the fire that burns twice as bright, burns half as long. Senna filmmaker Asif Kapadia rakes over the ashes left by jazz and soul icon Amy Winehouse after her prodigal talent and her internal demons immolated her in 2011 in this distressing, unrelenting and essential film.

Told in linear fashion, from her upbringing in North London- the youngest daughter of an adulterous cab driver and a weak willed mater, to her coming apart under the influence of the nihilistic Camden Caners, there are searing flashes here of her lyrical genius and her heart-scratched vocals. Her warmth, wit and wily acumen marked her out as the most talented songwriter of her own generation, one who could compete with the best of any other.

Much of the films heart is derived from the early tracking of Winehouse’s personality exploding across the industry, displaying an honesty that hadn’t resonated in decades, .Her barbarous, heartfelt digs at contemporaries such as Justin Timberlake and Dido and her simply stated self-belief in her own artistry still feel like a cool class of water, 14 years on.

But as she piles on the padding she needs to both face- and attract, the notoriety and adulation she loathed, morphing before our eyes from a wide eyed, tart-tongued teen into a chaotic, dead-eyed stooge, Kapadia scrubs away at her artifice. Through use of video phone footage, private voice mails and the original interviews with her closest confidants he exposes a human nerve infected time and again by lifelong insecurities that seemingly stemmed from her father’s early betrayal.

It’s brutal filmmaking, that at once holds music up as her outlet, her escape, yet a fox-trap violently clasping her to an agonising past, forcing her to do herself great harm in trying to break free of it.

Forever chasing a ‘pure’ relationship with her art, the toxicity of her human interactions and the business demands on a star of her stature were spliced into her drug of choice, music. Every time she revisited her oeuvre, she was freebasing the pain and horror of the past that tore her asunder in the first place.

And it was perhaps this thirst for authenticity that led to her eventual death. Seduced by the anarchic energy of the Camden Caners (a scene that included Carl Barrat, Pete Doherty and Johnny Borrell- performers who promised much but delivered little), Winehouse would turn her back on her childhood friends and her first manager, falling under the scenes pretensions, voiced by the man who would become her husband, the inspiration for the album Back to Black, Blake Fielder-Civil.

Introduced to Billie Holiday at a young age by her paternal grandmother, the
American legends influence shaped not only Winehouses inflections, but also her real life inspirations. She built a ‘me and my baby vrs the world’ narrative to protect herself from the aftershocks of her growing fame. Blake was the link to the girl she once was.And the creative high this helped her achieve would soon crater into a skag that would end her.

But Amy’s artistry is not the focus here and, while there are some excellent snippets of her performing rare and well-known songs Amy- the movie, treats it as just another plaster on an extremely damaged soul.

Drugs and the drink were what attracted the press to the starlet. The moth-eaten shell Winehouse becomes when they were through with her is horrifically displayed by Kapadia. As the crowds get bigger and bigger, the flashbulbs brighter and the voices louder, the psychological toll penetrates her body, as if she is consumed from the inside out. The kohl licked eyes, the tatty weaves, the mariners body-art, and ‘don’t give a fuck’ attitude are heimliched off of her. A horribly damaged- almost feral Winehouse is revealed, dazed and confused as strangers scrum around her trying to grab their piece, as those that should have protected her, propel her further into harms way.

There are ceaseless scenes of Winehouse looking ‘out of it’ on stage, being goaded and lauded by audiences demanding their pound of cathartic flesh. While even the lighter moments, earlier in the film, where she discusses her artistry are loaded with fatalistic comments and are tainted by our knowledge of what’s to come- her constant march towards a body bag.

It is an unbearably sad piece of work, about the interchangeability of love, dependency and addiction, a Freudian parable dolled up in a horror movie’s
aesthetic. It’s a draining, numbing and relentless experience that doesn’t just take you back to black, but drowns you in a tragedy that should never have been allowed happen, as endless warning signs are flared, but ignored.

Soul destroying but vital film making, it is not to be missed. But for fans of the artist, it is also not to be approached lightly.


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