Fade to Black: Amy

07/01/2015 5:20 AM |
photo courtesy of A24

Directed by Asif Kapadia
Opens July 3

Many music documentaries tend to take a wistful perspective on an artist’s life and work—a sort of good-person-despite-it-all tack that privileges creative genius over complex experience. (It only matters what they say about you, not how you got there.) The subjects in these sorts of films tend to come off as Teflon saints, their flaws rationalized, their edges sanded. Much of this has to do, surely, with interviewees and others not wanting to speak ill of the dead. Yet being raised to the level of a god often does the artist a disservice, leeching them of their humanity, hollowing them out by making them easy sells.

Not so Asif Kapadia’s wrenching documentary about the late singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, which—like his 2010 racecar-driver doc Senna—is comprised almost entirely of archival footage, with any retrospective interviews consigned to audio-only accompaniment. The doc draws on numerous sources: video and photos from the Winehouse family; fan-captured interactions on the street and at concerts; behind-the-scenes promotional films; and paparazzi images and recordings (these are some of the toughest scenes to watch since Winehouse was a notorious target of the tabloids).

Winehouse’s work often elevated bad behavior and the resultant suffering to art, and Kapadia cobbles all this material together into a roughly chronological survey of her sometimes intertwined rise and fall, from her early days as a distinctive up-and-comer, with smoky stylings in the jazz-oriented vein of Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and Sinatra, to her post-Grammy descent into annihilative alcohol and drug abuse. The film is an often rough, but fascinating watch, since Winehouse shows so many sides to her personality: cherubic naïveté in some early videos with friends, acidic dismissal during an encounter with an especially inane journalist, genuine humbleness when recording a Duets cut with Tony Bennett. Performing her songs seems to be a lone source of comfort (during musical numbers, Kapadia illustrates the lyrics onscreen, written in private-diary cursive), but she was ill-equipped to handle the roaring crowds that greeted her after she released her much-feted second and final album Back to Black in 2006. Seeing how she shrinks from the photog flashbulbs that lie in wait outside her Camden home—day in, day out—is nauseating.

That’s nothing, though, compared to Amy’s two most distressing scenes. Fans surely know the first one, in which Winehouse had an onstage breakdown during a concert in Serbia, which Kapadia shows from the perspective of fans’ cell phone videos. (The booing that greets her erratic behavior is a demoralizing portrait of devotees suddenly turning on their idol.) The other sequence is one few could have known until now: while at a tropical resort to recover from exhaustion and a recent rehab stint, Winehouse has a tense encounter with two fans that is captured by a camera crew. This crew is in the hire of the singer’s father, Mitch (who has recently come out against the movie), as part of a reality show he’s making, and he scolds his daughter for her tartness in full view of them. Even close family has their agenda. And this frequent pain is inseparable from the pleasure of Winehouse’s art—a troubling notion that Kapadia’s film forces us to ponder and reflect.