I felt like an asshole watching Amy. The new documentary about doomed singer Amy Winehouse left me feeling disheartened, and sad, and cold. “It left me feeling cold.” That’s a line I see a lot in film criticism today. People often say it as if it’s a bad thing – “It left me feeling cold.” The problem with that line is that further explanation is rarely granted by the people who use it. After all, what’s wrong with feeling cold? Many of my favorite films leave me feeling cold. There’s nothing inherently “warm” to gain from Cries and Whispers. Or Shame. Or Deliverance. A documentary about someone as troubled as Amy Winehouse is not going to leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. Cold is to be expected here. But my time with Amy goes beyond cold. Watching the film, I felt like a participant in Winehouse’s death. I felt like I was watching someone die in slow motion, and that I was helping it happen.
Instead, the footage in Amy has been collected from a variety of sources. At the film’s most humble, we get insight into Winehouse’s life through candid home videos. Singing happy birthday to a teenage friend (correction: other friends sing, Winehouse fucking wails – even at age 14, captured with the microphone from a crappy home camera, you can tell Winehouse had it), smoking weed before a gig, sleeping off a long night in the car. At the film’s most dangerous, we literally become the eye of the paparazzi who ceaselessly hounded Winehouse. We become one of the people who contributed to her instability, her panic, her demise. We’re right there on the dark streets of England with the rest of the camera-flashing bloodhounds. Watching as Winehouse stumbles through the streets, her face masked in smeared mascara, with her equally troubled husband, Blake Fielder, by her side, his face lined with fresh cuts and scratches.
Those are the highs and lows of the footage in Amy. Other, tamer material is taken from Winehouse’s appearances on late night talk shows, her stunned acceptance of the Grammy for Record of the Year, a stupid reality show that followed her father around St. Lucia, while Winehouse was trying to kick drugs. And so on. This choice, of not shooting any new material for the film, is a very bold, deliberate decision, and one worth commending. Because Winehouse’s brief life was so well documented, the amount of material must have been endless. What a task it would have been to track this footage down, then edit it into a cohesive film (editor Chris King deserves genuine praise here).
But the shots from the paparazzi’s point of view (and there are many), are the most disturbing sequences I’ve seen from any film so far this year. Maybe last year as well. It’s no secret that Winehouse couldn’t handle the ecstatic fame her music and persona afforded her. One of the last things we hear Winehouse say in Amy is that if she could give it all back, if she could go back to being a normal person, willing and able to walk down the street in peace, then she would. Think about that. Think about the millions of dollars that means Winehouse has to give up. Think about the returned Grammys, the refunded fame, the replaced legacy. All gone, just so she could regain peace of mind.
Technically, Amy is very well put together. There isn’t a flaw to be found in the broad construction of the film, nor from the sound bites Kapadia includes from his subjects. The film is a devastating portrait of a tortured soul, and will likely be remembered come awards time. But I couldn’t fully get on board with it. During those paparazzi shots, we, the audience, are the camera, which means the rest of the cameras are pointed in the same direction as ours, at Winehouse. The flashes of the cameras are so persistent, it’s actually difficult to get a clear view of Winehouse’s face. The flashes are faster than a strobe light, and they never stop. Watching the film, it hit me: if it’s hard for me to see Winehouse’s face in this footage, imagine how hard it was for her to see anything at all. B-