Amy : A Film Review

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Directed by Asif Kapadia, Documentary, Cert 15. 2hrs 8mins
From the cradle
The North London world of Amy Winehouse was modern life in a close Jewish family. The calendar approach of the chronology leading to her passing is in this film capturing a small part of the true Amy.

It is not a biographical film. Neither is it remotely complete or a true picture of her life. Self provokingly it postulates as a history of the composite music files, both Amateur record, professional parasitic paparazzi takes, concert footage and many personal tapes made by her entourage including decisively her first manager Nigel. A lot of footage making this film is apparently YouTube footage but it’s hard to tell.
The sharp contrast of titles used throughout, even sub-titling for lyrics which is a bit of a cosmic fudge akin to Amy’s dislike of a producers over dub inclusion of strings on one of her tracks is presented across speckled, low res film.

It looks hip. It reads unctuous and for a non Amy audience tells a part of the already seen crushing media and music business hardships she endured.
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Segments
The period between Frank and Back to Black are, remain a mystery. Despite all the exposure and written words Amy accounts for it simply as a period when ‘I started drinking and I fell in love.” Then after marrying Blake she began at what seemingly is the height of personal fulfillment, taking crack cocaine.

“What Is It About Men,” (“I can’t help but demonstrate my Freudian fate / My alibi for taking your guy”) does Mitch no favours, his “Amy: The Untold Story” — Mitch Winehouse is seen in the film as being a part of her pressures. Ambivalence towards drug treatment is direct and bullshit bravado as is ignoring his own manipulative misappropriated skills in time management.

19 management and other management appall. The ones around Amy, her closes friends are not ‘the management’ but gatekeepers employers. The constant roundabout of Virgin Mobile this and Q awards, Brit Awards etc, with relentless rock and radio appearances are precursors to a breakdown.
Amy was highly intelligent and instead of playing the roster of awards questioned the whole. Why have a best female?
Why not best Artist?
It is only too apparent. The music performances in certain places worked. You could never say she failed in an open air sunlit park gig no more than she failed in a night club atmosphere as it depended on so many things. She was in or out of the grooves he created and constructed.
Her writing is about something else. It gets a good airing but is in the end only a fleeting glimpse of the reality.
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Biography
Mick Jagger and others are quoted in Chas Newkey – Burdens book with a radically more persuasive dialogue than mere rockumentary can elucidate on. The depiction in visual form of a women’s downfall is treated here as burlesque homage. It is at times fragile and individuals get to express certain things they have longed to express no doubt. When x comes to y the journey is over for the women at the centre and the tragedy is immense beyond measure or retrieval.

Some folk will need to take a long hard look at themselves and have probably done so. Let them heal themselves. Let them access places Amy was forbidden to go and let them experience the healing brought.

Let them use their ears. The soundscape is amazing throughout with additional (occasional strings)assembling at the fine images of Amy stretched across the screen.

The film is set out as a filmic exploration of the mess and entanglements managerial, personal and familial that were scrutinised at times in the media. Many famous people are depicted at their zenith of exposure to Amy.
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Steadi-Cam
It sets out to be all that appears for a tag happy prescriptive account, as a prolonged encounter with destiny.
Never missing in bathos the footage takes to the skies in a hovercam, steadi-cam or drone hatchling. Rising above North Finchley, Southgate, Thames at Waterloo, Lee at Camden Lock, Kings Cross or from higher the whole of London we are lifted not only by words or narrative.
The choices made are presumably visual punctuation in a frenetic balls of a horror intervention.
As things come round Southgate Priory is now one of its flagship clinics.
Renown psychiatrists who encountered Amy give freely of confidential details of their post justificatory analysis.
Give us a lesson on the effects of drugs and alcohol.

Wonderment
For a film to make you turn almost to tears it must have sincere and heartfelt truth along the journey. It essentially comes from your reading of the talent of Amy Winehouse.
All else is bile and hearsay, reconstructed, edited for proprietorial reasons.
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Double jeopardy
At one point the Director Asif Kapadia cuts a scene in the retreat of St Lucia which her trustworthy bodyguard has found for a family retreat and recuperation which nearly acts as a catalyst for the journey to wakefulness so required by Amy, of her father Mitchell Winehouse, directing his own movie crew around the private gathering which shows – through Mitch’s own footage his berating her attitude when he sidles up two tourists for a selfie and he is merciless in having it on his own footage as a father controlling her attitude when peace and tranquility is foremost in Amy’s thoughts.

It is a father securing his own persona of protectiveness. Of showing her he is there. Witness the crew and his own little film. Then the undercurrent of Amy’s need for him to show her love which he as we say in these parts – ‘he’s a funny way of going about it’ – it is not only like throwing stones at swifts flying above seeking food and pleasure but a despicable tale told for us to be later subjected to and share this private unease.
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The Earliest times.
The film misses the early times.
From Amy Winehouse The Biography by Chas Newkey – Burden which I thought was a superb bit of journalistic endeavour though inevitably suffering from gaps as the film, I fill in with some of its points which are illuminating.

The Biography, the book tells a great deal.
It may drop off towards the end of the book as journalist are interviewed about interviews but it copes with the mystery and is hopeful of recovery.
It shows from her singing at school and being told to stop, her mothers Jewish jazz musician brothers, her adherence to Jewish tradition and the contradictory promise of Amy which took in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (film features) the Sylvia Young School indebtedness of which she said “..Although unlike my Dad, and his ancestors, I want to do something with the talents I’ve been ‘blessed’ with.”

She was a virtuoso from the time her most influential guru – her maternal grandma who became her mother in effect around the time of Mitch Mitchell leaving the family home for an affair and the Sylvia Young School predicting failure in the academic part the coping – inability of Janis her mother to restrain a creative force and where does autism strike? Where were the helpers in the schools or background faith brethren? How bi-polar defendant are events unfolding? Where do food issues enter?
Origins of her genetic gift.
Mitch Winehouse brought the jazz music world into the house they had in Southgate. 250,000 Jews settled in North London and loud was to be a feature of Amy’s upbringing. It seems Mitch was the connoisseur while Janis had the background music genes.

Amy’s brother Alex was a very big influence which she acknowledged and her schooldays were happy day’s and she took up guitar by buying a Fender Stratocaster not that she and her friend at school Juliette Ashby, who features a great deal in the film, had much call for playing blues or heavy metal.. More inclined to act as Shangri-Las and perform as a duo ‘Pepsi and Shirley’ or as pseudo ‘Wham’ backing band they formed a duet as ‘Sweet and Sour’.

Nan had the notion of grooming them, Alex included and Amy was able to sing behind her brothers Frank Sinatra repertoire. He was eighteen to her fourteen. Her own breakthrough she maintained happened around nine!

Troubled teens
Influences and loves are installed from nine until around fourteen and the disintegration from the absence of her father had a mighty effect.
Janis Winehouse had to work as well as look after her family and often would find a party started at the Winehouse residence with music blaring and often the teenage hangers on. Dross music was abashed for jazz and hip hop open sounds.

Amy’s words come across brilliantly on this period through the diligence of Chas Newkey – Burden and his characteristic love of the songs which emerged. The early years are so fascinating and at the same time make you weep for her and the troubled souls she leaves behind.

Chas Newkey – Burden is full of hope and optimism throughout his book and burns out hatred and the caterwaul talk – Jonathon Ross gets a great by-ball roughing it as a fellow commoner in the films TV footage. This film in interview clips is not short but in the book Chas Newkey – Burden repeats the intentional slur on her after some awards thing.
A hip Jonathan Ross. Forget it. Surrounded by Jewish culture though he does take faith in the Unitarians of Golders Green with his family which probably saves him. Others are snipping at her from a distance, Graham Norton, who never knew a Jazz song worth listening to and many cloth eared vampires and DJ sorts.
From the Sheffield premier came these comments.
‘Nick Shymansky, who discovered Amy as a 16-year-old and became her manager, said he could not turn down the opportunity to speak out.

“The reason I did this is actually to focus on her brilliance,” he told Radio Times.

“The dark side is so well documented, available and overly publicised. The one thing you know when you go and see this film is that Amy’s going to die. And I felt that for a long time before the end came.”‘

Julie Birchill got wind of her early but didn’t act on the lead given. Surprisingly. Is that correct? No show?
The former NME rock journalist found herself in conversation on the making of a TV Medical programme about asbestosis – the ironies just pile up – with Amy’s Aunt Debra Milne – a consultant histopathologist who convinced Julie to go see her niece in performance.

Discovery
As for 19 management Amy put her link down to Tyler James, Chas Newkey – Burden quotes her as saying, ‘I had one gig with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and Tyler, he was with his A&R guy Nicky (Shamansky), and Nicky said to him, “I heard this girl singing jazz on the radio,” and Nicky said “We’ll my friend Amy sings jazz and she’s great.” I think I must have been about 16. So I think Nicky was the one who convinced me to make a tape.’ The story goes on to quote her ‘I met Simon Fuller, like, two times.’

Fuller was no Svengali or Chris Wright (Chrysalis) type and had a ear but dealt in ‘churn’ of his own kind franchising Pop Idol.
The Chrysalis thing was his start and knowing the Beggars Banquet shop in Kingston Upon Thames I know there is a side to that enterprise, much is owed, to Jazz, darker themes and genuine avant garde or music with a quark strangeness and charm. Did they ever record Hawkwind!?. Certainly Tindersticks and the like. Tindersticks lead singer selling vinyl when it was naff. Not many bands canclaim a track on The Sopranos though!
Amy complained they played her songs in the bar on Emmerdale!
In the book as opposed to the documentary here both are only snapshots but genuinely play a role which escapes the film dealing with the same periods.

Some roads lead to other places and after the Sylvia Young endorsement she won a scholarship at the Brit School Selhurst Croydon which the book covers in some detail.
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Brit influence
I can correct some of that because I was involved on the initial phases of it setting up and opening.
The design of the school came about through the genius that is George Martin, not the xyz, mentioned.
Ambitions at the school existed but the forging of them took a quantum leap with BRIT involvement.

It was obvious to him the need existed and he knew how to get it organised so set up the British Recording Industry Trust organizing board or commitment to it.
BRIt had a prospective location at a secondary school wishing to diversify in South East London.

The practice Cassidy Taggart Partnership, I was subsequently to work for, won the Architectural design competition George Martin had set up.
My boss, Brian Taggart, I.O.M. of Liverpool schooling, who is a genius in his own right, designed a formidable praying mantis like building with a very large theatre box central core.
It was over two stories in height and had the structural elements hanging of it supporting and clearing the created opened studio floor space in the process around the block.
So at first floor the whole roof floated above areas without the standard column distances found otherwise.

The central performing space happens to be acoustically of the correct scale and composition. Attention to surfaces and size was the starting block.
Former offices I occupied for the practice had a central Dunlopillo(foam rubber pyramidic sheet) central wall and hoop sound block separating room noise either side!
It was apparent the building fabric and scale has a great deal to contribute as does the guidance much applied from George Martins career as studio producer.

The tuning of it into a finely calibrated Performing arts college took place and it opened at a cost which has been repaid several times over – the budget was extremely small and every trick in the book was used to make the building unique, buildable and functional at an unbelievable cost.

George Martin loved the result. Amy walks up the steps of Abbey Road into the studios he also designed in a house in Hampsted. It was just down the street from where the final detail works of design were formulated in a ‘temporary’ office for the BRIT SCHOOL which was alongside the ‘Spitting Image’ factory. You would go for a smoke on the fire escape staircase and several Dummies seen on TV would be staring from the windows at you. They would shake and sometimes move assisted by the folks indoors (in need of a smoke themselves).

Step one you kiss and hold her tight.
The book tells of Amy Winehouse not liking the school but I can imagine the slim figure crawling the steps of Selhurst station to get to the exposed platform late at night. The echoes of sound still resonating in her head from the building behind and from that cold wet vantage point see North and also wait to be taken down to London Bridge Station. The same is true of many a gig and artist I’m sure. Adele must have felt so much a part of a proper cultural force that London duly provided her and others with opportunities which they were in the vanguard of shaping.

The most revatory pieces come with the analysis given to the songs which she Amy Winehouse has given us.

Of Frank. Well, brother Alex, father Mitchell, Blake, Nicky and all men were possibly Frank (Sinatra) in her eyes.
She opened up in songs as no one ever has before.

Conclusion ####4
Back to Black tracks like you know I’m no good, show Amy as she struggles with the demons. It is bad news when TV take it beyond its angst against fidelity. ‘Secret dairy of a Call Girl’ used it while ‘Rehab’ is made darker than it’s fast loaded tongue in cheek origins. Just friends is high fidelity jazz along the lines of Aretha Franklin at her height.
Some of the takes on her songs as mainstream press and tabloids eschew their purpose driven diatribes are woefully abundantly squeamish to read. They are so unlike the music pilots and jazz messengers of the press whose writings inform.
Imagine the fun and superb judgement the late Derek Jewell would have had in hearing her perform and sing towards a new spectral age of music.
Sadly he is no longer around. He had years though that Amy did not. To see this film is to see only a small part which is how I have sought to construct this set of observations.
To direct you into music as delivered and to return to music and mix it with the current. The film is very well cut and fills a void of a kind but it has soured some.
I feel for people whose participation was an attempt at being free at last to speak their minds. Today tribute. To support the gracious memory of such a breathtaking lady.

She was dynamite unfolding but it need not explode in CinemaScope, is not intended to be trawled over using the very paparazzi footage of news hounds as it is counter to the apparent mine of other records that surely exist.
It is no doubt positive to be reminded of her worth and it is going to be an entry route for many to music of a magnificent kind so what’s the problem? Discuss?

John Graham

2 July 2015

Belfast

The film opens on 3 July 2015

QFT Belfast Friday 3 to Thursday 9 July 2015 then from

Thursday 16 to Thursday 23 July 2015

Multiple opportunities!

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One thought on “Amy : A Film Review

  1. Here’s the one thing you need to know if you’re a music lover but are unfamiliar with Amy Winehouse as an artist: the film does an extraordinary job of establishing her genuine brilliance as both a singer and a songwriter. I wrote indie rock criticism for years, but I had stopped listening to most pop music, and only knew Winehouse as the media trainwreck. I thought I was going to see a sad documentary about a very talented artist who self-destructed. What I saw instead was a heartbreaking documentary about a generational talent, someone who was at once a worthy successor to the likes of Billy Holliday as a singer and Joni Mitchell as a confessional songwriter. I’m actually not that big a fan of Winehouse’s brand of jazz/blues, but the songs I heard here (often with lyrics on the screen) are so great and so exquisitely sung that I plan to buy her CDs. Every music lover needs to see this, to understand the enormity of our loss.

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