Understand once he was a family man
So surely I would never, ever go through it first hand
Emulate all the shit my mother hated
I can’t help but demonstrate my Freudian fate
My alibi for taking your guy
History repeats itself, it fails to die.
These lyrics from Amy Winehouse’s ‘What is it About Men’ are just one incarnation of the spooky foreshadowing that arises in Asif Kapadia’s new documentary of the singer: Amy. A sad story with a sad ending, the film sits in the strange plane of the inevitable: the inevitability of Amy’s life, the way it panned out and the devastating way in which it ended.
Growing up, Amy’s father was never there, instead he was having a 20-year affair. ‘Child of the absent father’, then, seems to be the diagnosis and it seems inevitable that history will repeat itself: Amy will go on to have a destructive relationship with a man who doesn’t care for her as much as she cares for him – more specifically, a man who is in another relationship at the time they get together and who will sashay between both relationships with no regard for the pain he is causing. What is it about men? This certainly seems to be the slant of the documentary: the subtle suggestion that Amy was ceaselessly manipulated by the men in her life, and that she couldn’t help but ‘demonstrate [her] Freudian fate’ and, as a later lyric in the same song suggests, ‘take the wrong man as naturally as [she] sing[s]’.
Substance use and abuse is a given from the outset of this documentary, both from our predisposed notions of the singer and from the early footage in pubs, clubs and house parties where alcohol and weed are her early drugs of choice. Later come cocaine, heroin and other substances introduced to her by boyfriend Blake Fielder-Civil. But the real drug, as this film seems to put it, is love. Love for the wrong men. A willingness to do anything for the admiration of her father and for the adoration of Blake – men who will time and time again let her down. Maybe naivety is her downfall. But her songs were never naive. They were open and mature. They were resigned to their own uncompromisable Truth. They told it like it was.
This is the unusual thing about Amy, though it seems banal. She was open. Close-up shots draw us to her in this film. She flirts with the camera, and pulls away bashfully, and pulls you in again. Openness, though it seems simple, is also what is unusual and beautiful about her lyrics: those reckless pods of confession. She, and her lyrics, were uncareful. That which made her loveable made her vulnerable, made her loveable… And grammy-winning.
This documentary takes its form as a glued together collage of photos, videos and accounts from friends and relatives: among them, former manager Nick Shymansky and close friends Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert. It is a ‘London film’ at heart, with some clever overhead shots of the cityscape and a dedication by Amy of one of her awards to the city. But whether London is a backdrop, a recurring theme, or a metaphor, it is always subtle. In fact, the merit of this film is in its subtlety. We believe it. Of course, as informed viewers, we know that every documentary has a slant, tells only a partial truth. But the film never over-dramatises Amy’s plight. The theme of ‘celebrity’ is a recurring one and the sensation of paparazzi following you around is particularly well done. But for the most part it seems like this film is an elegy to Amy’s music, an induction into the jazz singers’ hall of fame. She was a true jazz singer, it tells us, through the voice of Tony Bennett, one of the best. And we can’t help but believe this is true.
Expect to be moved by this film in all the right ways. And to want to go home and scour youtube for her most obscure work. It’s a gem.