AMY and the history of rockumentaries

03 Jul 2015 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

6 mins

Our pick of this week's new cinema releases is fantastic British documentary AMY, which explores the tragic story of Amy Winehouse, from her incredible talent and phenomenal rise to fame, to the personal demons that plagued her throughout her life. Find all the info you could possibly need on this brilliant and complex documentary below...

Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse was a London based singer-songwriter who electrified the world of music with her two albums Frank and Back to Black, before her tragic death in 2011 at the age of just 27. As a cultural icon and figure of endless media attention, Amy's life was both intense and troubled. This documentary seeks to uncover who Amy really was, examine the intensity of the world surrounding her and pay tribute to her enthralling musical talent.

Rockumentaries are great...

Musicians have always appealed to documentary filmmakers, partly because they are figures instantly familiar to audiences, but also because they tend to be enigmatic figures and full of charisma. Cobain: Montage of Heck (which examines the life of the late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain), was released earlier in 2015, while two of the strongest films of 2014 were the ethereal documentaries 20,000 Days on Earth and The Possibilities Are Endless, about the musicians Nick Cave and Edwyn Collins respectively. Other recent favourites include Marley, Searching for Sugar Man, Buena Vista Social Club and even One Direction: This is Us!

...but they aren't JUST about the music

The best musical documentaries are more than just portraits of their subjects: they also reflect the artists' social significance, the wider culture surrounding them, and their enduring legacy. Great examples of this are: The Beatles' mockumentary A Hard Day's Night; seminal counter-cultural film Woodstock; and The Filth and the Fury, which chronicled the punk movement of the 1970s. The truly exceptional documentaries are not afraid to present their subjects warts and all, and take an even-handed, detached look at their lives, as well as the music itself. AMY is a fine example of this strong tradition. 

Asif Kapadia

British director Asif Kapadia is probably best known for his previous film, Senna. This true fiction documentary tells the story of Brazilian Formula 1 legend Ayrton Senna and, like AMY, is pieced together from news, television and video footage. The story is told in the style of a fiction film, foregoing the traditional talking head style of documentaries. The effect of Asif's approach is that the interviews seem more like live commentary.

Asif was given unprecedented access

Winehouse's first manager, Nick Shymansky, watched Senna in the cinema and thought Asif would be the perfect person to tell Amy's story, long before a film was even being considered.

After a lengthy interview some of which appears in the finished film Nick handed over an extraordinary volume of archive material, giving the filmmakers access to footage from the very early stages of Amy's career, as well as candid material revealing aspects of her personality never before seen by the public.

AMY took a LONG time to produce

In total, the filmmakers conducted over 100 interviews with people connected to Amy for the film. This resulted in a massive amount of footage, and the editing process took around 20 months, with the film itself taking around three years to make in total. It is very common for documentaries to have long periods of post-production. Unlike most feature films, documentarians will usually only find their film in the editing process and because they do not have a script, they will often only truly discover the kind of film they've made towards the end of production.

The rise of documentaries

AMY is part of an on-going rise in the popularity of documentary films in cinema. Since the success of filmmakers like Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine) and Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) in the early 2000s, documentaries have had an increasingly high profile, and continue to reach larger audiences. The trend looks set to continue, with the emergence of film distributors specifically focused on documentaries and several new multiplexes opening in cities with individual screens dedicated to non-fiction films. We highly recommend going to see these films in the cinema; at their best they are an immersive experience unlike any other, and they're guaranteed to get you talking.

Amy and the modern media

Amy was very much a celebrity of our times and her treatment at the hands of the paparazzi, the tabloid media and others is there for all to see. The rise of social media, camera phones and YouTube has created a more intense level of celebrity than ever before, and raises serious issues surrounding privacy that affect us all. The film makes us aware of the voyeurism and exploitation involved in Amy's life, provoking questions about how we treat figures in the public eye, while also acknowledging their enduring fascination.  

Amy and her lyrics

One of the decisions the filmmakers made for AMY was to overlay lots of the visual footage with lyrics from her songs. This powerful device brings home how many of her songs were personal reflections and responses to events in her life. It also allows for greater audience reflection on her lyrics, perhaps encouraging us to think about Amy's music in a new way.

Want even more insight into the making of AMY? Reporter Hope spoke to Asif Kapadia, as well as paying a visit to the edit suite to meet editor Chris King and producer James Gay-Rees. Read her fascinating report here.

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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