Monday, July 13, 2015

Review: AMY: Selfies in the Maelstrom

The millennials' very own 27 Clubber, Amy Winehouse soared to fame like an F-18 and then crashed like a 747 but this time in slow motion. In that short time she pushed a timeless jazz through filters of her own history and templates cut from everything she didn't like about contemporary music into the 2000s to create an untouchable style. She also made cataclysmic life decisions which saw her go from a plucky teenager to a desiccated husk. This stuff we know. And we assume that because it was so public in this time where the line between public and private is so shaky that that is all we need know of this case. Amy is dead and buried, sang well but, boy, was she good for a joke. It's that bit that this film addresses.

It opens on two teenage girls as they sing Happy Birthday to the one holding the camera. Trumping her friends with a huge, gleaming grin, the cherubic Amy, cigarette in fingers, trills the song like Monroe and everything we know about her life hits us between the eyes. The voices of those friends (often stilted by sorrow) will keep surfacing through the media blitzkreig like rescue signals. That's necessary because for the next two hours we are immersed in a life story, a few years short of three decades of intense withering.

That this film is neither dirge nor freak show is testament to director Asif Kapadia and his team. I didn't see his highly lauded Senna as I couldn't bring myself to watch anything about motorsport (I know, if the film is good enough that shouldn't matter) but now I think I must. Winehouse's fame coincided with the dawn and rise of social media and if I say that Kapadia succeeds here because of a deep understanding of Amy Winehouse it's less from any personal insights than his skill with the ocean of content she generated.

Home video, phone video, selfies, talk shows, holidays, performances and paparazzi all contribute to the motion jigsaw we see. The new content is supplied by interviews done for the film and the massive editing job. Those interviews are audio-only; taking the talking head out of a biographical documentary removes the safety buffer for the audience so that there is nothing but editing between us and the sounds and images of the life on the screen. There is a delightfully clear path to Winehouse with her friends teasing and laughing as the cam silently records as a now natural element in a social situation. But there is also no protection offered from the video selfie of the later Amy, emaciated and self-aware, recording her wasted physique in the dark with a slight, unsettling smile.

Because the first video is so arresting it's a doddle to settle in to this format of content tsunami with only spare commentary (and that varying and unshamedly  personal), however difficult it can be to watch some of it. The balance Kapadia strikes, given how much raw source he would have begun with and how tempting it would have been to have editorialised rather than edited, is exemplary. But the balance would only rate for worthiness if it weren't also for the unflagging sense of journey that testifies to Kapadia's guidance: he knows we know the story but he wants us to know all of it so that by the time we see the montage of comedians, presenters and talk show hosts taking cheap shots with howitzers we recall our own and shrink from the memory: the film is not judging us, it happily invites us to do it ourselves.

Meanwhile we see Amy, the songwriter who slogged it out in tracky daks at home with a Strat and a writing pad, who showed astute judgement of her own performance in the studio as she perfected lines, take after take. We see a bona fide star struck dumb as she watches one of her idols present her with a Grammy, her gaping awe draining all self awareness. We see a friend in high London sass, clinking glasses with her lifelong friends. And we see a girl in plaits with a huge grin as we are told of the difficulty of an unguided childhood in a house she dreamed of escaping from the age of nine. And if we see her plummet into raving insensibility with the clubland alpha whom she worshipped, married and then accompanied on a slide down to the kind of Hell it took Jean Paul Sartre to imagine, we take it with the rest. There's a lot of drugging and boozing and clubbing here but the line between reporting and leering is never crossed. We are being informed not invited to salivate, and by the time we watch her mutely wander the stage at the infamous Belgrade concert we can no longer tut-tut or smirk at the psycho drugs and pills lady living up to all her jokes: we're lucky if we don't well up.

Eventually, there are as many scenes of Winehouse trying to make her way through the masses of pappazzi constantly on duty outside her Camden house. Even sober, she must have felt transported to another dimension where the breeze sounded like metal on metal and the sunlight came in blinding flashes. But we are compelled to remember as we watch her walk numb through the ratcheting storm of camera shutters, the insensitive eyes in her skeletal face violated by constant speedlights, that this was once a cheeky girl who just wanted to sing. And when we see her last procession through the cameras, on a covered trolley pushed by paramedics we need to remember.

The Daily Mail muckreported that Amy Winehouse died watching Youtube clips of herself. If we read something like that at the time it was without surprise. As this quilt of electronic evidence suggests, though, we should step back from that and remember that any of us might well go a similar way, gasping our last as Gaz the Raz yet again does the streak at our graduation ceremony on whatever forehead implant Youtube shall have become. If Winehouse were able to see this her horror would not be from the images of herself flailing through a drug haze but the breathtaking invasion of the images themselves. The stretch between their intimacy and the alienating effect of their edited presentation creates a dizzying eeriness. As this documentary is made entirely of digital source material it might very accurately be called The Amy Winehouse Files. But the confidence of the edit and the craft in the construction prevents this from the tabloid sneer that a title like that suggests.

If you had fun in your twenties you knew an Amy Winehouse. Actually, you more than likely knew a few. Those boys and girls who sped themselves up to cope with the velocity of their own brains and boozed back down to be with the rest of us, who landed in Emergency at three in the morning, who were famished for sex and noise, who found their bedmates in gutters and agar dishes, who constantly craved neural relief, who clung to the walls in quieter moments, barely able to make it down the hall, whose laughter thrilled and terrified us, whose phone calls could drain or energise us, who were as silly as death and as grave as a good joke: we knew all those ones who gave our times their signature and colour, and we either went to their funerals young or watched as they settled into awkward mediocrity and judged them worse than those who died.

The difference was that Amy Winehouse, like Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain, was famous. The difference between that and this film is that the mass of the kind of material it's made of doesn't look all that different from what we upload ourselves. When Facebook a few years back offered the dinky Gallery of Your Life app we clicked and let the algorithm give us a pack of Vanity filter tips. Kapadia has protected us from seeing the result of Amy Winehouse clicking on what the whole internet would return and instead given us something to celebrate and learn from. Any Amys in the audience won't stop being Amys, it's not their nervous systems up on the screen so they're not bound to admit any kinship, but if the rest of us should learn to extend a little care to them then this story's work is done.