The most prominent sound in “Amy”, Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-nominated documentary chronicling British R&B singer Amy Winehouse who died at age 27 in 2011 from alcohol poisoning, is not Winehouse’s iconic voice or the wonderfully retro chords that so often accompanied it; it is the sound of paparazzi flashes. They grow in number and frequency the further the film goes and the higher her star rises and the closer the inevitable fall comes, and they are terrifying, dozens and dozens and dozens of them all piled on top of one another, relentless, the flashes lighting up the night sky, usually right outside Winehouse’s own home, like tracer fire. I can’t imagine how blinding and disorienting so many of these flashes would be in such fiery succession, and neither can Winehouse, it would seem, from the way she reacts, which can be frightened spacey detachment, furious anger, or trembling fear.
“Amy” employs these images as a means to convey how over the course of her brief yet tempestuous career she became a victim of the camera’s gaze as much as of alcohol and bulimia, the two causes that directly related to her terrible demise. You can’t know that kind of fame until you actually experience it, we are told more than once, as we are often told with these types of stories, and yet the intimacy we are allowed with Winehouse through the plethora of home videos, whether shot by family and friends or members of her professional team, that comprise the backbone of “Amy” back up this assertion. We watch in terror as she falters and gets worse and worse and worse still, making terrible decisions that are more often enabled than discouraged, particularly in terms of people like her promoter turned manager who is all too eager to offload blame for what transpired on absolutely anyone else.
Though everyone in the documentary takes care to commend her voice, and to extol her seemingly limitless talent that never bore as much fruit as promised, both the voice and her music very much take a backseat to chronicling “Amy’s” downward spiral. So often films of this sort seek to leave us with the idea that a song like “Tears Dry On Their Own”, regardless of her tragic demise, was “enough”. Kapadia doesn’t seem to think it’s enough. Instead he uses the treasure trove of archival footage at his disposal to construct an impressionistic argument that those around Winehouse failed her as much as she failed herself. He never removes the blame from her shoulders, mind you, but he slowly lets the noose tighten around people like her ex-husband whose worse-for-wear off-camera voice sounds loaded with regret, and Winehouse’s own father, too-willingly hopping in the gravy train, emblemized in one horrifying late-film sequence when he forces his dire straits daughter to pose for photos with tourists when she desperately doesn’t want to.
Yet there are times when “Amy” almost inadvertently falls prey to this same gaze that it seeks to condemn. These behind the scenes videos are intended as intimate glimpses of who she was off camera, yes, but they can just as often play like voyeuristic leering, particularly later in the film when she’s clearly on a slippery slope. There is one moment in particular when Kapadia cuts directly from a worse-for-wear Winehouse to stock footage of her on posing on a magazine cover, unintentionally reminding how easy it is to forget the former in the face of the latter.
Yet, in another way, this is a tactical strategy. “Amy” wants us to feel complicit. At a Grammy nomination ceremony George Lopez goes straight moron and says that someone should wake Winehouse’s drunk ass up and tell her she’s been nominated, while Dave Grohl cackles in the background. It’s a moment designed to make you want to punch Lopez in the face and lash out at everyone that let her pass them by as she faded away, but it’s also designed to make you wonder what you might have thought of Winehouse in those moments. I couldn’t quite remember. Maybe I didn’t want to remember.