Lidija Haas in the LRB:
Close-up of Amy Winehouse. Not the stylised mask of later years, with its extravagant licks of eyeliner. What you’re seeing is a quite different face, that of, as one record exec recalls her, ‘a classic North London Jewish girl’, large-eyed, fleshy, constantly in motion; it belongs to someone mouthy, beguiling and almost resplendently ordinary. Off-camera, a female interviewer appears to be trying to get Winehouse to join her in pontificating on women musicians who write about their personal lives: Dido, the interviewer insists, really ‘cleaned out her emotional closet’ on her last record. ‘Didshe?’ Winehouse asks sarcastically, leaking contempt on Dido, her emotions, her insipid music, but most of all on the hapless journalist. As the woman talks on, Winehouse’s expression shifts. Mugging for the camera, mocking her interlocutor, she reminds you that long before the press made her into a punchline, she was a comedian.
This is a scene from Amy, a new documentary by Asif Kapadia, whose previous films include two – The Warrior and Far North – that pit an individual against a vast, inhospitable landscape; one aberrance in the form of a Hollywood thriller starring Sarah Michelle Gellar; and Senna (2010), a documentary about the Formula One driver pieced together from 15,000 hours of archival footage. As Kapadia told the New York Times, there are few people about whom you could make a film like Senna, because he was so famous that, anywhere in the world, ‘whenever he goes to work there is a camera there. So you have his work and his career and his death all on camera.’ Winehouse’s tabloid fame in the years preceding her death in 2011 at the age of 27 puts her in a similar category, although unlike Senna, who seems to have been more or less unaware of or unfazed by being filmed, she has a dynamic relationship with the camera, shifting from a playful, often flirtatious presence in early footage shot by friends, to an increasingly weary, lonely, spied-on expression as the paparazzi close in.
Each of these documentaries shapes a sympathetic portrait of a thoughtful, sensitive person, exceptionally gifted in their field, who we as viewers know is heading for a disaster (one quality of found footage is dramatic irony; no one on the tapes can know what the audience does). Stars of sport and pop music are similarly susceptible to being underestimated, seen as instinctive talents (which helps create a sense of fatedness around them), and Kapadia is determined not to portray his protagonists that way: inSenna, the manager of the McLaren team talks about watching him drive early on and being impressed by his pace and dedication, but most of all by his mind, because ‘in the end what you’re looking for is an intellect.’ It’s clear that with Amy, as with Senna, Kapadia doesn’t want to show only the crash: it is, after all, the part of her story we’ve already seen in excruciating detail.