Long before the first frame of the Asif Kapadia film AMY found a home in the documentary tribute to Amy Jade Winehouse, the director’s team encouraged fans of the London jazz-singer turned international superstar to talk about what kind of movie they wanted to see produced. This egalitarian approach earned the filmmakers the respect and admiration of a good number of hardcore AJW fans, and may have yielded some worthwhile guiding principles for the film-team to consider. Since I and other AAN associates were among the fans that ‘lobbied’ for the kind of film that would be well received by us, it seems appropriate that my notes on AMY must be colored by my view of how well my own hopes for the film were met.
For what seemed like way too long, I looked forward to the film’s release. Then, when it came time to see it, I was overcome with the fear that seeing the Jade-Mermaid Princess on the big screen would be too emotionally draining. The vision of a grizzled old cowboy collapsed in a puddle of his own tears on the floor of a public theater was not pleasant. I had pretty much resolved to wait for the DVD and the opportunity to breakdown in private.
Nobody involved with AAN is a stranger to tears, or to that horrid sore-throat feeling that comes with the recurring realization of the loss that the world suffered four-years ago. Having manipulated more than 20,000 images of AJW, it may seem that we should be immune to the pain, but that is not the case. In fact, the constant exposure to the images has no curative properties at all; it may actually serve to keep the pain more alive and more intense.
After much encouragement from persuasive folks, I decided that I owed it to Amy’s memory – and to my own sense of paying tribute – to man-up and showup at the cineplex. What follows are my own respectfully offered and honest views on the film AMY, which I watched twice on consecutive days.
Some Random Notes:
When contemplating the merits of a film, it is pretty easy to take the fast and easy way out by simply labeling it a ‘masterpiece’ or ‘junk.’ As an old guy, I avoid hating things but if I had to hate something it would likely be book, film, art reviews that reach rapid and simple conclusions; answers delivered without a full massage of the questions. While this entry could have been – and originally was – very much longer and far more detailed, obstinate editors decided to limit its length. I am consoled by reports that the AMY DVD will be released on October 26, 2015, at which time I will be given the chance to dissect and fully opine on each and every scene.
Within the first two-minutes of the film’s start, I knew that my breakdown barriers were not going to be breached. A strange sense of calm came over me as the face I have come to know so well filled the screen and seemed to be looking only at me. I felt that a friend I never met – and yet love as I do my grandkids – was telling me to relax and rest beneath the blanket of joy that she was about to unfold.
Folks who saw AJW perform in concert know that her stage presence was nearly unparalleled. No matter what else was happening upstage or down, the only thing you could look at was that tiny girl. So it is with the big-screen Amy, as her image seems to fill every inch of the real estate and everything else becomes invisible. Add potential movie-star to the list of things we lost when AJW made her final exit.
The early parts of the film are largely composed of never seen and infrequently seen vids and pics. But, there are many familiar images throughout the film that will make Amy fans comfortable and less fearful – more accepting – of what must inevitably come. The filmmakers showed respectful restraint in their selection of images. I saw none of the standard horror shots or bash-pics that are frequently used by the haters to wrongfully defame and discredit Amy.
Marketed and promoted under a ‘heartbreaking tragedy’ meme, AMY could have almost as easily been pumped as a ‘joyful celebration’ of the magnificent adventure that AJW – and her fans – experienced as she delivered the priceless treasures of her dynamic music and heart-melting personality. Just because we all know that the story ends in the worst possible way is no reason to allow maudlin expectations to diminish the fact that the film shows Amy in an extremely positive and uplifting light. AJW’s charm and humor are just two of the remarkable qualities shown that all fans should spend more time being grateful for having been allowed to adore when she was with us.
The first time the music got loud, I rejoiced that I had abandoned my plan to wait for the DVD. Big TVs and speakers are great, but AMY really deserves to be first experienced in a theater. While no fan ever gets enough of AJW’s music, there are ample tunes featured in the film for both newbies and oldtimers. There is small doubt that additional musical offerings – perhaps including some early live, and international performances – will likely be featured in the sundry DVD releases.
Though we all know that film is a ‘director’s medium,’ and clearly AMY director Asif Kapadia‘s vision is the loving and respectful one that appears on the screen, only the supreme skills of film editor Chris King could have delivered that vision. Because AMY is largely assembled from variations of the thousands of images that AJW fans have become familiar with, the task of assembling those pieces into a contiguous storytelling vehicle could only be accomplished by a genius assembler of celluloid jigsaw puzzles. King deserves mega-props for his spectacular achievement.
The powerful saga of AMY is told in a straightforward, right linear and fast-paced fashion. There are no boring parts; none at all, which is kind of rare for a two-hour movie. Nobody was squirming in their seat and nobody at either of the two screenings I attended took a snack or toilet break. [I know that because I always snake a backrow seat when I plan to write about the experience.] There was lots of appropriate laughter when Amy was being Amy, and a fair number of gasps at some particularly startling onscreen action. There was no talking, no ringing phones, everybody sat seemingly spellbound. There were a few Kleenex users near me, and when the low-lights came on just about everybody remained seated to watch the credits or, perhaps, to make sure their tears were properly dried.
While some folks have commented that the film is a bit long, and others that it is too short, the length felt right to me, but longer would have been fine as long as the pace remained the same. Are hardcore Amy fans really ready to see a nearly four-hour opus like Scorsese’s Dylan flick? Probably, but the newbies required to help expand the AJW fanbase and spur a new round of music sales ‘ain’t got half-a-day’ to spend learning every tiny-penny detail that the devoted worshipers and serious cultists crave. And, obviously, it is hard for a film to be commercially viable if its length radically reduces the number of times it can run each day. Novices want a spirited and fast-moving primer that is exciting, fun to look at, and feels jam-packed with info. AMY contains enough tidbits for oldhands and is short enough to capture and hold the attention of newcomers.
Folks who have found the film to be not comprehensive enough and/or not all-inclusive, neglect the fact that you cannot load 100-pounds of diamonds into a two-pound sack. With many hundreds of hours of material – and only two-hours to reveal it in an interesting and entertaining way – tough decisions have to be made. No one is more aware of that degree of difficulty than are the AMY filmmakers; by all traditional metrics, their challenge was remarkably well met.
My desire to see Amy treated ‘fairly and respectfully’ – as I alone define those concepts – is at the heart of my own criteria to determine whether or not this film has merit. I wanted to see AJW shown as a musical genius who altered the world of modern music; and, as a decent, honorable, and terminally ill human who was terribly and wrongfully abused by circumstance and society. In my view, AMY delivers magnificently on both counts.
For far too long, Amy’s life has been characterized as a matter of ‘great music and bad conduct.’ That half-right assessment is, of course, founded in disease chauvinism; the false and vile dogma that actually, in part, helped usher Amy’s unjust departure. AMY makes it sufficiently clear that the ‘conduct bashers’ are wrong in both their conclusions and their own despicable conduct. The conduct of humans suffering from the disease-ensemble that long plagued AJW is a symptom of those ailments; not a comedic topic and not a character defect.
It is also important to note that at virtually all of the dozens of post-screening Q&A sessions conducted by the filmmakers, the issue of the illnesses afflicting AJW has been discussed among the participants. Such public chats are extremely valuable in raising awareness and understanding of mental illness and its consequences.
Though I understand the magnitude of our collective loss as much as any longtime rank-and-file AJW fan, digesting the film has given me a minor sense of peace that I have not really felt since July 2011. I do not at all confuse that feeling with the myth of closure, but it is still welcome relief. Your results may vary, but at the very least you should feel that your fandom is fully vindicated when you see AJW so wonderfully exalted on the big screen by a world-class filmmaker.
Of the scores of AMY reviews published in the past two-months, I can just about count on one-hand the number of reviewers who correctly point out that the film is not just a funeral dirge or a loss lament. It is, in more than equal part, a celebration of the ultra-extraordinary human being that was AJW. Amy was not a ‘tragic figure’ and she was not harmed by ‘demons.’ She was a smart woman who excelled in her art and business, and suffered from a terminal disease that was never successfully addressed and ultimately claimed her life.
Since a fair amount of publicity surrounding AMY has related to very nice folks who were not satisfied with the way they feel they were portrayed in the film, it would be far too politically correct, expedient, comfortable and cowardly not to briefly address that issue here.
There has been speculation about whether the filmmakers had a particular agenda from the outset of their project. A plan, if you will, to create a heroine that was vexed by evil forces and people who could be cast as caustic villains. To be polite in describing the nature of the ‘learning curve’ faced by the film-team when they began planning AMY, I’m not going to say they were ‘clueless’ about their subject matter. Instead, I’ll just say they seemed ‘not clue rich.’ Early on, AJW fans were asked questions by the film-team such as, “Who should we talk to?” It is hard to make a case that an agenda-driven film was in the making with such elementary queries being made.
However, in my view, the point and counterpoint are both moot. Quite simply, while some of the film’s content may make some folks uncomfortable, there are absolutely no allegations posed by the film against any of the persons featured. The film is only about Amy, and it tells the story of some of what was happening around her during certain points in time. Nothing in the film attacks anybody, no villains are specifically charged, and no individual blame is assigned.
Not being at all naive, I well understand that many viewers will infer certain things from the words and images in the film. But, as slight salve for that truth, I can offer my strong good-faith belief that there is nothing within the small complained of portions of AMY that was not long previously known to all serious AJW fans and YouTube scourers.
While I regret any ‘hard feelings’ that may have developed between some AJW fans during the promotional phase of the film, I do not regret supporting the only non-familial, major-media release to date that portrays Amy Jade Winehouse as the decent, humble, trusting and loving human genius that she was.
AMY is, by any objective standard, a masterwork documentary. Kapadia’s ‘acquired love’ for his subject bleeds from every frame, and his only bias is revealed to be a fierce affirmative defense of Amy’s decency, artistry and innocence. He accomplishes his mission without once telling his audience exactly what they should think or believe. Pics, vids, music, lyrics, and voices take viewers on a strangely comforting mystery tour; while they wish they never had to make the trip, they will ultimately be glad they did.
Time will tell how long AMY can remain my pick as the definitive film-primer on the life and times of Amy Jade Winehouse. There will be future films, but Kapadia’s masterfully crafted overview will be very difficult to dethrone.
If for any reason you have avoided taking a looksee at AMY, you should remedy that circumstance now. Do not be afraid of the ‘sad meme’ that has prevailed; there is plenty of fun, excitement, joy and love in the mix, too. As ‘awards season’ approaches, numerous special screenings should be available hither and yon. Don’t cheat yourself; go see this film.
The Asif Kapadia gang is in the vanguard of a ‘new wave’ in documentary filmmaking. There is a longstanding reason that so many docs get made and so few attract a paying audience, and it’s not the absence of a secret sauce or the lack of interesting subject matter. Every aspiring doc-maker should go to school on both AMY and Kapadia’s previous film Senna. Forget film school, just employ AK’s anti-boredom techniques and you will have cracked the code.