It’s funny how cultural phenomena can sometimes pass you by. I slept through the meteor that was Amy Winehouse’s career (what was I doing?). I’d seen her name often enough, but when she died in 2011 I could not have told you the title of one of her songs – not even Rehab, which, I have been assured, ‘everybody knows’. So, in a way, ignorance was a blessing with which to approach Asif Kapadia’s over-long and repetitive, but intimate and at its drawn-out conclusion, touching documentary.
Let’s face it, though – we love a celebrity death, especially when it is a talented life cut short (is there an element of schadenfreude in this?). The suggestion, however, that as rubberneckers we cry crocodile and soon-forgotten tears over glam-tragedy as effortlessly and greedily as we consume the fabulous triumph might not sit well with idolaters. This film is composed of far too many homemade vids that are only interesting because Winehouse is in them – but that’s what fame is all about, after all. The Big Star could be eating a jam sandwich, but because it’s a Big Star we think it significant. And I cannot recall any other doco in which the subject’s face takes up so much full-screen time. I knew her skin, her facial hair, her stud, her obsessively painted eyebrows and every nuance of her smile, from fake to sunshiny. That’s why, in the end, the movie works so well.
Amy is deceased, just when we are belatedly getting a handle on why and, more darkly and deeply, what part we might have played as demanding consumers of all things in the public domain. The excerpts of her performing are fantastic. As a jazz singer, she was, as Tony Bennett says, up there with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday – but there remains a terrible sourness.
We are hateful of the paparazzi that hounded her, but we buy the magazines. We are uplifted by the life as much as we are smugly reflective on its loss.