Even though the new documentary Amy chronicles the life and death of the singer songwriter Amy Winehouse it doesn't really feel like a bio-pic. No, it belongs to a new genre - the bio-polemic. Amy shows us in great detail how a young woman from the wrong side of the tracks became an international superstar... But it only does so because it wants to critique the media, who were all too willing to harass a vulnerable woman until she committed suicide via alcohol, and because it wants to indict the millions of consumers who passively enjoyed the fruits of that harassment without ever stopping to think about how they were helping to ruin a stranger's life.
Anyone who already knows the broad outlines of Winehouse's rags-to-riches-to-early-grave story is probably predisposed to agree with Director Asif Kapadia's argument, but you might not agree with the way he states his case. It would be easy to accuse this film of having a pot-and-kettle problem, because Kapadia is trying to prove that the paparazzi are invasive by airing a dead star's dirty laundry on the big screen. Yes, Amy effectively makes the point that living your life under intense public scrutiny is unbearable - but it does so by allowing the public to scrutinize a bunch of home video footage that was clearly meant to be kept private, which is definitely a questionable decision.
Still, I'm glad that Kapadia decided to risk being called a hypocrite because a film that took a surface level approach to Winehouse's story wouldn't have changed anyone's mind. Anyone with a brain can see that our current celebrity obsessed media is dysfunctional and anyone with a heart can see that making fun of an alcoholic for their drinking problem is insensitive. But I'm not sure that most of us have any real sense of how deep the rot really runs in our society, and I'm glad that Kapadia has shone a spotlight on the problem. If the choice is between being honest-and-exploitative or being respectful-and-toothless, I'm glad that he chose honest-and exploitative because it is much more powerful this way.
In fact, it might be too powerful for some. Amy is so unabashedly blunt about Winehouse's struggles with fame and addiction that watching it liable to make you feel ghoulish on top of feeling guilty. It is hard to watch her having fun drinking and smoking with her friends knowing that she will die from alcohol poisoning; it is even harder to sit through footage of lazy comedians turning her song Rehab into an empty punchline once you've seen her struggle to stay sober. But that hardness is exactly the point, because Kapadia knows that you have to be able to see past someone's public persona into their private life before you can understand just how insufferable a TMZ-style spotlight really is. It is easy to accept the idea of a shutterbug stalking a celebrity as long as they feel like an idea instead of a person, but it is impossible to accept the idea that the paparazzi's unrelenting attention is merely business-as-usual once you see the havoc it wrecks on the all-too-human Winehouse.
As you might have guessed by now I found Kapadia's argument to be highly persuasive. However, I must admit that he didn't have to do much to convince me - I have always found the way that the tabloids cover celebrities with substance abuse problems to be overly judgmental and cruel. But even tabloid fans should be able to admit that Kapadia does a masterful job of laying out his case.
For example, this film purposefully sets out to shut down the people who think that celebrities should just accept whatever treatment they get because "they signed up for it." Winehouse is very clear in her early interviews that she has no interest in fame, and while that sort of claim is often semi-facetious, it rings true here. She had every reason to think that she would be a niche act: she started her career out as a jazz singer and there aren't that many jazz singers on the top of the charts these days. Of course now with twenty twenty hindsight we can see the ways in which her crossoever success was inevitable - but how could she have ever expected to become one of the most famous people in Britain? She didn't look, act or talk like a world conquering pop starlet.
In many ways I think that fame is like a rodeo where you sign up to a ride a bucking bronco but you never know if you'll get a meek pony or a rampaging war elephant instead. When Kurt Cobain signed his first record deal he should have expected to be about as successful as his inspirations like the Pixies or as his contemporaries like the Melvins, bands who had fans but were hardly iconic; the idea that Nirvana would sell tens of millions of records should have been unthinkable to him back then. When Dave Chappelle started writing Chappelle's Show he had to have assumed that his specific brand of race-based humor wouldn't really appeal to white audiences; he can't have predicted that the DVDs of his first season would end up outselling the Simpsons. When Dave Chappelle walked away from his 50 million dollar Comedy Central contract everyone thought he was insane - but seeing how Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain ended up, I'm not so sure that his sudden sabbatical from the spotlight didn't end up saving his life.
Although I have often had issues with other documentaries about dead celebrities, I think that Kapadia's decision to over-expose Winehouse's private life is actually justified in this case. He obviously has noble intentions and that puts him light years ahead of similar films which only exist to satisfy people's morbid curiosity or to goose back catalog sales. More importantly, it matters that he clearly has empathy for his subject. Yes, there is an extent to which he is exploiting Winehouse's tragic life, but I can forgive his approach because he clearly sides with her and not with the skulking vultures who were hell-bent on savaging her for their own selfish gains. Finally, I can forgive him because his movie might be able to change the way we all consume mass media. After all, it is already too late for Amy Winehouse, but it isn't too late for all of us to stop acting like blood-thirsty parasites.
Winner: No One Really Wins With This Shit