Thursday 30 July 2015

Amy (2015) - Movie Review

As a human being who possesses the basic concept of empathy, I am sad that Amy Winehouse died as young as she did. Knowing her then-widely publicised struggles with substance abuse and alcoholism, regardless of the oft-repeated jokes that were made at the time of her death about how ironic Rehab sounds in hindsight (which, I regretfully admit, I indulged in a bit of myself), just adds another stitch to the tapestry of the tragedies of fame and the loss of human life to its vices. Hell, regardless of her fame, dying as she did to alcohol poisoning after all that had happened is kind of heartbreaking. Of course, as a human being who knows what he likes when it comes to music, I am really friggin’ sad that Amy Winehouse died as young as she did. Knowing how shite pop music has gotten over the last few years (or, rather, shite-er) and how she was one of a select few that stayed consistently good with their output, it makes me kick myself every so often for not giving her the attention I should have while she was alive. So, in keeping with the idea of crystal-clear hindsight, how does this documentary on the life of Amy Winehouse pan out, speaking as a major fan of her work?

The premise: A look into the turbulent life and career of singer Amy Winehouse, chronicling her early days surrounding the release of her first album Frank, to her years in the public eye due to her involvement with drugs and alcohol and her work on her acclaimed sophomore album Back To Black, right up to her untimely death in 2011 from alcohol poisoning.

This is a mostly archival documentary, in that it is comprised solely of either photo stills and pre-existing footage and home video of Amy herself, along with audio interviews of her family, friends and collaborators. Using the video footage is a particularly nice approach as it gives a very natural and proximal feel to the production and gives the impression that we are seeing something closer to her than the tabloids would have been able to scrape up way back when. However, even with how much this works in the film’s favour, it starts to falter when it gets to the photo stills. These scenes, some of which last for a good minute or two, consist of a static photo with an interview played over it. Now, this could have worked, especially since the photos chosen fit with the interview topics, it gives an unfortunate sense of cheapness to the film after a bit like we’re watching a trashy ‘exposé’ on the E! Network. It fails to engage as well as the other scenes that are more dynamically put-together.

Since we’re dealing with a musician here, it should be expected that the music be on-point and it most certainly is here. We get numerous instances of Amy Winehouse’s music, with both live performances and recorded demos or otherwise previously unreleased tracks. The addition of lyrics on screen during most of the songs, either added digitally for the former or showing the handwritten original lyrics for the latter, not only pleases that part of me that frequents a little too often but props are deserved for the attention to detail on them as well. Whenever the lyrics are shown over grungier-looking video footage, the visual quality of the typeface differs to keep everything looking consistent. Along with Amy Winehouse belting out every number, we also have an original score composed for the film by Antônio Pinto. I may have my misgivings about the man himself, considering he lent his skills to the abomination on all things cinema that is The Host, but the mellow and jazz-tinged tracks he brings to the film accompany Winehouse’s musical style very well.

In terms of depicting the creation of said music, as showing the connection the artist and their art is an important aspect of any film that centres on making music, we definitely get a good look into her creative processes with this one. We see the more contemplative Amy, using her music as a way of coping with her depression, but we get also a good eye-full of the fan girl Amy when it shows her working with one of her idols Tony Bennett on a cover of Body And Soul, as well as when Tony is reading for one of Amy's Grammy wins. With the former, she has a very moving line about how she feels lucky that she has an outlet for how she feels whereas some others with depression aren’t as fortunate. This aspect of her pouring her troubles into her music is helped by expert placement of her songs in relation to her life’s story.

The inclusion of interviews of her key producers, them being funkiest white man alive Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, frequent collaborator of god MC Nas, sheds some light on this as well, both sharing their personal connections with her as well as reminiscing about studio time with her. I would have appreciated more word from Ronson, as he’s only heard once in the film whereas Remi features quite regularly, but what he does provide is still good, particularly him talking about working with Amy on her hit song Rehab. The description Remi gives to a certain studio session where Amy’s bulimia got the better of her is pretty gripping too. Then there’s the interviews with Yasiin Bey AKA Mos Def, whose detailing of an occasion when Amy visited his hotel is heart-breaking, and The Roots drummer Questlove who talks about a supergroup he, Amy, Mos Def and Raphael Saadiq were apparently going to put together, which is also heart-breaking but for entirely different reasons. If I ever got access to a time-space transporter, first thing I’d do is visit a parallel universe where that group released an album because that team-up is made of pure win.

Beyond the music, the film paints a pretty vivid picture of Amy herself as well. She is shown as a very emotional and caring person who listened to the advice of some people in her life that she probably shouldn’t have. She loved the people around her and wasn’t shy to admit who she didn’t like, as we see in a couple of hilarious moments where she shows her confusion/disdain for pop stars like Dido and Justin Timberlake. She was also well and truly in trouble long before the media furor started, given her history of mental health issues; it just so happens that the attention made it all worse. We get a fair amount of demonising the media here, showing a few clips of comedians making fun of her drug problems and the paparazzi hounding her everywhere she went. Now, as much as I would rather turn my nose up at the notion of how vile the paparazzi are, given how loud the sentiment is these days, between the disorienting flashes of the snapshots and the seriously dickish and glib things they said around her that we see on camera, the filmmakers here at least give good evidence for it.

The interviews with her friends and family also help portray how she was seen by others, and it is here that we reach the token ‘controversy’ concerning the film: The depiction of her father Mitchell Winehouse, the man that inspired her to write Rehab. When this film first came out, he cried foul due to him being portrayed as the villain because of his influence on her. However, he doesn’t really have much to worry about here as he isn’t really portrayed as a monster in this film; rather, he’s shown more as being misguided in his actions concerning his daughter which, in all honesty, is true of a lot of people connected with her as the film shows. I may question his actions in a scene depicting him bringing his own reality TV crew with him to see Amy at a retreat, but for the most part he is shown as honestly as everyone else is.

All in all, this is a very well-made and moving depiction of one of the great modern pop divas. It may be spotty concerning the visual choices, specifically with the use of photos, but it gives a good idea about Amy Winehouse beyond simply the substance abuse that the news always highlighted. The access to both home videos of Amy and her friends and family as well as interviewing everyone closely involved with her definitely set it apart from other media that take a similar look into the life of Amy Winehouse, and the inclusion of rare recordings of hers makes this a must-watch for other fans of her work.

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