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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Amy, Review: Alcohol, Drugs, Sex and all that JAZZ

Amy, Review: Alcohol, Drugs, Sex and all that JAZZ

(a.k.a. Amy: The Girl Behind The Name)

If you are a film-maker looking for a subject, a feature-length documentary on a recently deceased top-ranking female jazz-soul artiste, who had troubled relationships and died at 27, would be as good as it gets. Add to that the fact that extensive, excellent quality footage is available or obtainable, and you are in business. But, as is inevitably the case, the million-dollar questions faced by a documentary-maker is what to retain, from the hours and hours of archival scenes that you have procured and transferred on to your editing table, and what to add, in terms of fresh shooting. On both counts, Asif Kapadia has done commendably well.

An acclaimed talent, Amy Winehouse was a guitarist-singer-songwriter who captured the world's attention for a five-six year stint. A pure jazz artiste, she wrote and sung from the heart. In her short life-span, Amy won six Grammy awards. Her huge success, however, resulted in relentless and invasive media attention, which, coupled with Amy’s troubled relationships and precarious lifestyle, saw her world tragically begin to come apart, and she died from alcohol poisoning, in July 2011, aged 27.

BAFTA award winning film-maker, Asif Kapadia directed the universally acclaimed Senna, a documentary on legendary Formula One racing driver Ayrton Senna, the highest grossing UK documentary of all time. Born in London in 1972, Kapadia studied film-making at the Royal College of Art. Kapadia’s distinct visual style was seen in his first feature, The Warrior, shot in India, and starring Irrfan Khan. It is in evidence here too, though the propensity to keep everything in mid-close or close shots, with an eye on television broadcast, which will be the film’s primary source of revenue, seems a bit overdone. Stock-in-trade tools, like sound preceding visual and voice preceding speaker, are recurring patterns. Amy’s sculpted face and extraordinary hair, often done in a bouffant(beehive?), are quite like characters in a plot. Everything, barring a few childhood scenes, is presenting in gorgeous colour, and sound is pulsating too. Amy’s own music, both in the back-ground and live coverage of her studio recordings, grows on you.

Content is neatly arranged, and carefully rearranged, to give a total perspective: The subject, her family (father Mitchell, mother Janis and grand-mother Cynthia Levy), her friends (Juliette Ashby, Lauren Gilbert and Tyler James), her sympathisers/idols (Peter Doherty, Yasiin Bey, Tony Bennett), her boy-friend/husband/destructive influence (former video production assistant, Blake Fielder-Civil), her musicians, her collaborators (Salaam Remi), her managers (Nick Shymansky, mainly), her recording companies (represented by the top brass), her doctors, the media, her fans, even her security personnel—all find due representation. Also on screen are her home videos, her recordings and song-tracks (intelligently juxtaposed), her gigs, and several candid moments. Mention must be made of her Grammy win attendance via a video-link, and the recording sessions of her duet with Tony Bennett, at the Abbey Road Studios.

Amy Jade Winehouse’s unhealthy addictions to sex, drugs and alcohol, and the long-kept secret disease of bulimia (reminiscent of another premature death, Princess Diana), are judiciously addressed: neither evaded nor indulgently showcased. The talented singer was very close to her granny, who, in her time, dated jazz legend Ronnie Scott, and she even had his name tattooed on her arm. Amy’s tattooed arms had Blake’s name. She often described Blake as a male Amy.

They were very similar for comfort, and, what could be worse? Blake got her addicted to crack cocaine and cocaine. Not long before Amy’s death, Fielder-Civil was imprisoned on charges of trying to ‘pervert the course of justice’ and of causing ‘grievous bodily harm with intent’, for an assault on a pub owner. He was jailed, and not allowed to attend her funeral. Amy’s death is briefly covered in the film, at the end, but there is none of the after-shock or obituaries. No details are provided about Blake’s crime, except the police having to break-in with a battering ram to arrest him.

Many of Winehouse’s best songs from her 2006 album Back To Black are about her tumultuous relationship with Fielder-Civil, including ‘You Know I’m No Good’ and the title track. Other notable work includes ‘Stronger Than Me’, ‘Rehab’ and ‘Love Is a Losing Game’. Her debut album, Frank, was released in 2003, when she was 20. It was produced mainly by Salaam Remi.

Amy, who has some visual resemblance to another singing/acting Jewish icon, Barbra Streisand, comes across as a highly vulnerable, impulsive girl, who was spoilt by the fact that her parents and grand-mother never said “No” to her wants. Her father’s extra-marital affair, soon after her own birth, and subsequent desertion of her mother, played heavily on her, though she still continued to love both of them. While gifted with a great talent, the plebeian in her found it dazzling and distracting when she started getting famous, and she is often shown on camera, gaping wide-eyed. A strong sense of humour also characterised her personality. She played and sang jazz music, and only started song-writing when she was told that her own, highly personal, poem-like writing was good song material. Although she spoke with an unmistakable British accent, her songs had an American touch, and she often swallowed words, so the sub-titles are a great help. Persons, occasions and locations are identified in unobtrusive, coloured type-face superimpositions, something that is so useful in a documentary.

Amy might not be appealing to those who are judgmental over permissive and addictive life-styles of real-life protagonist(s). Other cineastes might find it up-close, penetrative and sad in equal measure, and therefore good viewing. As for jazz music, and Amy Winehouse fans, this is a must watch. Jazz itself is elitist and does not expect audiences of 50,000 at gigs, as has been emphatically stated in the film. On the other hand, a well executed biopic on a life of a contemporary jazz/soul icon who was so human, so confused, so true to her art, so rebellious, so addicted, so crazed and so dead before she could make any sense of her own life, should attract audiences of millions worldwide. India is not prime jazz/documentary territory, so its release here may not create massive waves. But India does have a huge film culture, and some classy ripples should surface.

Amy’s last recording was a duet with Tony Bennett (58 years her senior and 89 years-old in 2015), Body and Soul, as part of his album, Duets II, released after Amy passed away. One of her many lovers, singer-songwriter-musician, painter, poet, model, actor, drug addict (also convict), Pete(r) Doherty, who co-heads the band The Libertines (a confessional title, if there ever was one), has released a song dedicated to Amy, Flags of the Old Regime. It has a sombre, intimate, candle-lit, black-and-white video to go with it. Proceeds from the song’s sale go towards the Amy Winehouse Foundation, established by her family, which works to discourage drug abuse in young people. Amy was a harsh critic of Pete’s music, but, according to him, the two were “kindred spirits.”  

An old picture of Amy overlooked the band as they worked on their third studio album.

Rating: ***1/2



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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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