Tears Dry on Their Own, by David Bax
There’s a subgenre of biopics and biographical documentaries sometimes labeled “warts and all.” The notion in these cases is to avoid being hagiographical and present the subject with naked honesty. In practice, though, the approach often seems to be making a case for disliking the person being profiled. Asif Kapadia’s Amy is different. Kapadia shows us Amy Winehouse in a way that holds little back. But we don’t leave the film feeling like we’ve been disabused of our feelings about Winehouse. Instead, we leave feeling that we know her not just as a great talent or a tragic figure but as a human being. We get to know her the way the loving friend would. When it’s over, we feel lucky to have known her and to have her music but we also feel gutted by her demise.
We meet Winehouse as a teenager, already possessed of a supernatural voice and on the way to being a professional singer. We hear of her charisma from those of her friends interviewed (all interviewees are heard but never seen) and we see it in her every gesture and expression. It’s lucky for Kapadia and for us that so many of Winehouse’s friends liked to record video of seemingly mundane situations. Her early fame and the success of her first album, Frank, means there’s plenty of interview footage as well. None of it, however, is particularly useful from a biographical perspective. But we do get to know Winehouse as someone who, from the start of her career, had no interest in playing within the boundaries of the pop star role. In one of the biggest laughs of the film, a reporter insists on a lengthy comparison between Winehouse’s career and Dido’s while Winehouse is physically unable to hide her boredom.
There are elements of Winehouse’s reactive, live-wire personality that sometimes make her seem less than friendly. As the film goes on, though, and we are able to fit these into the larger picture of her rocky psychic landscape, they only make her more endearing and sympathetic. Not faring so well, on the other hand, are Winehouse’s opportunistic father (absent for most her life and suddenly present when her fame balloons) and her on again/off again enabler boyfriend and eventual husband, Blake. To Kapadia’s credit, he doesn’t go out of his way to make villains of either of them. Mostly, they do that to themselves. When the father insists that she “didn’t need to go to rehab,” the stories we’ve already heard and seen about her drug abuse make him sound ignorant, heartless or both. Blake doesn’t do himself any favors either, sneaking heroin to Winehouse while she’s recovering from an overdose. With both men, Kapadia never loses sight of the fact that his story is not about them but about Amy herself. As damnable as their behavior is, the film makes sure we understand that Amy loved them and even gives us some understanding as to why.
Having so much footage with which to work, Kapadia doesn’t have much room for stylization. He does find room for a few slow-motion shots and, most remarkably, a stunning use of drone cameras for swooping overhead shots of Winehouse’s neighborhood and other locations. Between this and Going Clear, it seems the best use of drones is to help add production value to documentaries.
Kapadia’s other stylistic choice, which is also an academic one, is to print Winehouse’s lyrics on screen while she sings them. They’re deeply personal; she wrote about the things she was going through, most of it heartbreaking. They’re also phenomenal. Seeing the artistry of her words bolsters Kapadia’s secondary goal. In addition to letting us get to know Winehouse as a person, he also aims to restore and even increase the respect for her as a pure talent, one of the greats of recent decades. Both of these threads come together in a powerful sequence during the recording of the song “Back to Black.” Kapadia shows us Winehouse in the studio, singing along to music we can’t hear pumped through her headphones. Then he slowly fades in the music, only fading it back out at the end, as she plaintively repeats the song’s title. It’s crushing. And then, true to form, Winehouse makes it funny by commenting, “Oh, it’s a bit upsetting at the end, isn’t it?”
Moments like that are what stand out about Amy. Yes, it’s a terribly sad and often shocking account of a young woman with great talent whose demons pushed her to an early end. But, more than that, it’s an argument for her individuality, her deep compassion and her charm. We grow to love Amy a little bit so that, in the film’s bleak final act, we do more than shake our heads. We truly mourn.