There are several ways to approach Amy, already one of the biggest documentary box-office hits of recent years. One would be in terms of its fidelity/revelation for Amy Winehouse fans. I wasn’t one of those (although I admired the voice and followed some of the news stories) so I won’t go there. Instead, I think it’s worth considering a comparison with Senna (UK 2010), Asif Kapadia’s earlier documentary about the Brazilian Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna.
Senna was in several ways a breakthrough cinema documentary, not only in terms of documentary practice, but also in the way that it was distributed – becoming one of the first cinema films to benefit from the changes in distribution brought about by digital projection. These enabled the film to ‘grow’ an audience over several weeks in the UK and to eventually attract filmgoers who were not necessarily fans of Ayrton Senna or motor racing. (The film eventually earned US$5 million in the UK and over US$5 million overseas.) It could be argued that one of the major reasons why this wider audience enjoyed the film was because the story was heavily ‘narrativised’. Asif Kapadia chose to present archive footage in such a way that the edited material ‘told’ the story of what happened to Senna without a controlling voiceover. Different voices on the soundtrack were used to overlay the footage (and again, with just a few exceptions, these were comments from the archive). The overall effect was to create something with a narrative structure similar to the fictional ‘sports biopic’ with recognisable conventional elements. Thus Ayrton Senna emerges as an attractive young man as well as an exciting and accomplished racing driver. As the hero he battles against a clearly defined rival in the form of Alain Prost as well as against the institutional elements of the sport, especially in battles about the safety of the sport. The story has a tragic ending that becomes what would be the ‘final act’ of a conventional biopic.
Amy was presented as a project to Asif Kapadia because of his success with Senna and the similarities between the story of the sports star and the music star. On Senna, Kapadia had access to all the material owned by FOM (Formula 1 Management) the single body in control of the sport. For Amy he had access to all the music produced under contract by Amy Winehouse for Universal Music. These were massive advantages since negotiating rights for such material would prove both expensive and time-consuming for other producers. My interest in this comparison is first to work through the similarities and differences between the two projects and then to try to assess what emerges from this analysis and what it ‘opens up’ in terms of ‘reading’ Amy. I’m not going to be able to complete the work until a DVD of Amy becomes available since close readings of sequences are going to be required. I’ve already worked on Senna for earlier student events and the notes for teachers from those events are available for Free Download here. At the moment I’ll restrict myself to a few first observations about the similarities and differences between the two films and their production contexts.
Both films are, at least potentially, linked via narrative structure to the biopic. Senna is clearly modelled on the sports biopic. Formula 1 is an interesting sport because it is now truly ‘international’ as well as being part of wider ‘motor sport’. This makes it attractive as the basis for an international commercial film. It also has the benefit of its presentation via technology – i.e. it is possible present credible fictional ‘sporting footage’. Football, despite being the world’s most watched sport has so far failed to produce major films partly because it isn’t possible to find actors who can play the game to the standard of internationally known star players. By contrast Rush (2013) made US$90 million worldwide as a drama based on the Formula 1 battle between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) in the 1970s. Certain sports have generated celebrity figures and are associated with glamour. Arguably football is now approaching the point where star players are international celebrities, including in North America. Though it isn’t a biopic, Bend It Like Beckham (UK-Germany 2002) demonstrated that a small independent film could travel internationally, partly because of its association with a celebrity figure (who isn’t a character in the film). Perhaps the most frequently used material for fictional sports films comes from boxing. Boxing involves violence, ‘body spectacle’ and connections to both celebrity culture (boxers are often the best paid international sports stars) and , at least historically, elements of organised crime. Boxing also fosters the idea of fallen men ‘rising up’.
The sports biopic has much in common with the music biopic in terms of conventions. Both are likely to be biopics that focus more upon the teen to thirties period when young stars develop and reach the ‘top of their game’. Both deal with early struggles to develop talent and feature ‘breakthrough’ moments. Often young stars will have personal battles with competitors, struggles with their personal lives, conflicts with managers and official/institutional bodies and struggles with the impact of fandom. More recently, celebrity culture has become a major issue for both sports and music stars. The narrative events in both can be categorised as ‘private’ and ‘public’ – the public events have already been presented to TV audiences and mediated many times. Even those which are now mainly historical can be ‘known’ to modern audiences via DVDs etc.
However, music biopics are usually more popular than sports biopics. There are many more produced and some (e.g. Walk the Line, 2005) have been major international box office successes as well as awards winners. Audiences are going to be more familiar with the conventions and the stories themselves are often more accessible (we know the songs, we feel closer to the music industry than to the official bodies of sporting organisations). If Kapadia consciously constructed Senna as a sports biopic, did he do the same with Amy and the music bio? My initial reaction is that if he did, he left out many of the expected elements.
Amy and genre conventions
Perhaps because I didn’t follow the ‘real’ story as a fan, I’m more conscious of the ‘gaps’ in Amy as a music biopic. For example, the industrial aspect of the business is only lightly sketched in. Universal is the biggest of the music majors and a global corporation (owned by Vivendi in France). Amy Winehouse was signed to Island, a Universal label in the UK and to a different Universal label, Revolution, in the US. The label bosses do figure briefly in the film but the ‘signing process’, a generic feature of the music biopic, isn’t covered – nor is the success of the albums Frank (2003) or Back to Black (2006) presented in visual terms. Maybe this is a reflection on current music industry practices (i.e. chart positions, sales etc. are less important moments)? But it does seem to me that the narrative is more focused on the final act and hasn’t space for these conventional sequences. One consequence of this is that the film tends to lose any sense of the economics that underpin the singer’s lifestyle. We know she has become rich, but what does this mean? She seems to be in rehab or spending six months in St. Lucia – how does this relate to pressure re contracts to produce records and to make live appearances? I was quite confused by the events leading up to the gig in Belgrade – did she want to do gigs like this or was she forced to?
Amy is about relationships – with her parents, her two best friends and the various music industry personnel and fans that she meets, some of whom become friends and one of whom becomes her husband. However, these relationships seem to be mainly presented as part of the tragic personal narrative rather than equally representing the personal and the professional development of Amy Winehouse as a singer, composer and performer. We don’t get enough of the changes in Winehouse’s musical tastes and the potential conflicts this might create for her band members or for the record label bosses. Friends more au fait with her music have also suggested that the film gives us only a few of the songs/performances that made her a star – which seems surprising given that the rights were presumably available via Universal. I can only conclude that Kapadia chose to focus on the personal and the celebrity status rather than the early music career as this would attract a wider audience. Personally, the best parts of the film for me included the early footage of a young woman playing guitar and singing in the manner of her jazz heroes, and her recording of a duet with Tony Bennett (it was Bennett who prompted me to take Amy Winehouse seriously when he was interviewed at the time of that recording session).
Amy and the aesthetics of documentary practice
I really do need the DVD for this. What interests me, in comparison with Senna, is the extent to which Kapadia was limited by the found footage available. On Senna he found footage that was in one sense ‘neutral’ (i.e. not focused directly on Ayrton Senna) and which he was able to manipulate and edit in different ways to suggest meanings. Sometimes he discovered footage that offered better images than he might have conceived himself. At other times he found footage that worked purely on a visual level through editing and processing. By contrast, my first impression was that the footage in Amy seems less malleable, partly because much of it is more intimate and closely focused on Amy Winehouse herself. I might be completely wrong (which is why I need a DVD for confirmation) but much of the footage seems to have been shot on phones or video cameras and the best quality footage comes from TV shows. I suppose motor racing is inherently more ‘cinematic’. In Amy, the only footage taken by Kapadia’s cameras seems to comprise a number of aerial shots of London, used partly to show the singer’s homes and partly as ‘punctuation’ between the sequences of found footage. I’m not sure if this worked.
What does this add up to? I’m moving towards arguing that Amy doesn’t work as well as Senna in informing us about the music business or in telling us Amy Winehouse’s story as a music star. On the other hand it may work just as well, if not better, as an affective story about the tragedy of Amy Winehouse’s personal life – and that may explain why it will be more successful commercially. The fact that her father has objected to the film (he figures prominently in the footage as one of the potential villains of the narrative but her mother is less visible) may well have added to audience interest. A fiercely critical view of Kapadia’s approach can be found in a Guardian blog post by Ruby Lott-Lavigna:
. . . the film’s exploitative lens: a lens that lingers on intimate images of Winehouse gaunt and high, or on the shocking footage of her body being removed from her Camden home in a body bag. One that leers at her bulimia-wrecked form or even more questionably, uses paparazzi footage in the same breath as explaining how being hounded by the press drove her closer to breaking point. The documentary lacks a voice, supplementing this void with a tabloid-esque scrapbook timeline transposed to screen. Using personal footage and amateurishly inscribing her lyrics across the stage as she sings them, it is reminiscent of a fan-made YouTube video. The documentary seems to lack any moral control, instead stacking one image of a drunken Winehouse on top of another, gradually effacing its own credibility.
This is interesting in its assertion that what is seen by ‘the lens’ – i.e. the found footage that Kapadia has chosen – needs to be ‘explained’ or ‘anchored’ by a (presumably objective) narrator. It also implies that documentaries must embody a moral position instead of offering a narrative that audiences must read and make up their own minds about. I do agree about the lyrics though. Sometimes it was useful but having them for every song did get tedious.
For now I’m biding my time until I can analyse the film in detail before deciding where I stand. In the meantime what were your first impressions?
Here’s the US trailer:
These notes act as an introduction to some of the interesting questions about the approach to a specific type of documentary by the British filmmaker Asif Kapadia. The same approach was adopted in Kapadia’s recent film Amy (UK 2015) telling the tragic story of Amy Whitehouse. A detailed post on Amy will follow shortly.
The approach discussed here involves creating a narrative entirely from archive or ‘found’ footage and complementary sound recording and photographs.
The notes were originally provided for study days for A Level Film and Media groups (16-19 year-old students) involving a full screening and an illustrated lecture on documentary practice. Some of the background material was jointly written with Nick Lacey. The notes include discussion questions and can be used in conjunction with the DVD of Senna.
This is the latest film I’ve caught on BFI’s Flipside DVD and Blu-ray series investigating 1960s ‘under the radar’ films and it is really interesting. As ‘interesting’ suggests it’s the film’s position in history that makes it worth seeing rather than its intrinsic merits. The date on the print is 1963 but it was two years before it was released, because of problems with the BBFC, and then it was hacked so much that the director and producers had their name taken off the credits. The BFI have restored the original and although some scenes are pretty scratched it generally looks good; some of the cinematography, by Larry Pizer, is striking. Of course the rating has changed: from the original adults-only X to 12. I wonder if it had been submitted for certification a few years later whether it would have encountered the same problems as the nudity is all indirect, unlike in say Blow-Up (UK-US-Italy 1967). Probably, like the banned until 1968 The Wild One (US, 1954), the lack of moral condemnation of the ‘beatniks’, at the end of the film, worked against it. Apparently the version that was released does have a change of focus at the end. That said, there’s no doubt the film is condemning the youngsters, just not enough for the moral arbiters who probably believed ‘weak’ minded young people would want to be like the nihilistic wastrels.
The film features Oliver Reed, who unsurprisingly out-charismas most in the film, as Moise the conflicted ‘beatnik’ and was directed by Guy Hamilton who went on to make Goldfinger (1964) and three other Bond movies.
It’s not just the changes in censorship that makes the film interesting. The representation of young people (the ‘beatniks’) at a time when London hadn’t quite yet started swinging is fascinating. It’s clear that screenwriter Marc Behm (b. 1925) absolutely hates them as they are shown to be a particularly unpleasant bunch of hedonists; the conclusion of the film urges them to ‘grow up’. A Hard Day’s Night (1964), often thought of as the precursor to the Swinging Sixties films, hadn’t been released (Behm scripted the later Beatles film, Help!, 1965) but it’s clear that the bohemian lifestyle that became emblematic of the ’60s was already annoying fogies, such as the 38 year old Behm. By the time the film was released it would be hopelessly out of touch with the zeitgeist of British cinema that was. in its youth pics at least, celebrating young people; though often in a reactionary way – see Here We Round the Mulberry Bush (1968).
Apart from its fogeyness, the other disappointing aspect of the film is the narrative structure of the script. It has a quite good conceit, involving retelling of an event, that could have been at the centre of the film. But the meandering opening fails to gain the narrative drive that would help the audience to care about what happened. My overall impression, however, is the middle aged resentment at young people supposedly enjoying the hedonistic lifestyle that had not been available to them in their youth.
Slow West is beautiful to look at. It includes several stunning set pieces and it is well-researched and carefully prepared – but I couldn’t help feeling that it didn’t quite produce the coherent narrative I was hoping for. Perhaps the main issue is whether or not this is ‘a Western’? There has been plenty of critical weight behind Slow West including a piece on the ’10 Great Modern Westerns’ by the BFI and the implication that Slow West belongs in such company.
John Maclean was previously a musician in The Beta Band and he directed the band’s videos. One of these was seen by Michael Fassbender and eventually Fassbender appeared in two short films which both won prizes for Maclean. Slow West, written and directed by Maclean is his first feature. Maclean’s parents are both well-known visual artists and he studied painting at Edinburgh College of Art. It’s not surprising then that there are some wonderful compositions in Slow West. With the highly talented Robbie Ryan as cinematographer, Maclean is also served by a marvellous use of natural light. There are several scenes in the film I would like study in detail once it is available on DVD.
The film’s story involves a quest by a teenage Scots boy Jay (played by the gangling Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee) searching for the girl he loves whose family has been ‘cleared’ from the Highlands. He believes she now lives in Colorado with her father. (Jay claims to be the son of ‘Lady Cavendish’.) At the start of the film’s narrative we meet Jay in a forest clearing in the first of many dangerous encounters. He’s rescued by Silas (Michael Fassbender), an experienced but clearly suspect ‘drifter’ (the character repeatedly refers to ‘drifting’ and Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter may be a reference). The rest of the narrative takes the pair through a series of other similar encounters until it reaches the inevitable climax. Maclean also uses flashbacks and dreams experienced by Jay and voiceovers offering forms of narration by Silas. Maclean’s musical background means that there is an appropriate score composed by Jed Kurzel, the Australian musician who also scored The Babadook, plus a campfire song written by Maclean himself.
Apart from a few scenes in Scotland, most of the film was shot in New Zealand. Many critics have suggested that the setting could easily be the Rockies and that audiences won’t notice. I’m not sure about this. It seems to me that the story could have taken place in New Zealand anyway and still allowed Maclean to make all of the points he wants to make (i.e. about racism, colonialism, violence etc.) – ‘Westerns’ have often been set outside North America. It’s certainly the case that everything in the film could be an element in the repertoire of the Western. Maclean has done his research and he is aware that until recently Westerns were more mythological than realist. He wants to emphasise the various European migrant groups in the American West in the late 19th century, the ‘real’ Native Americans etc. – though I’m not sure about the three musicians from Francophone Africa (French imperialism in Central and West Africa was mostly later than 1870). According to this Guardian online piece by Rowan Righelato, Maclean himself has described his film as “an existential European road movie”. That seems a pretty good description for the overall ‘form’ of the film. It seems to me that although all the Western elements are ‘authentic’ they don’t all fit together either as a realist historical drama or as a traditional Western genre film. I’d be interested to see what academic scholars of the American West make of the film. Reviewers seem to refer to the setting as ‘1870’ but if this information was conveyed in the film (perhaps a date in a newspaper?) I missed it. It is clearly ‘post’ Civil War but some of the incidents suggest earlier or later periods – and different locations.
Does all of this matter? Probably not or probably only if, like me, you are expecting a Western. The Western was once the American genre par excellence and whatever the ostensible narrative intentions, Westerns always conveyed something about American myths and changing ideologies as well as broad statements about the history of the frontier. Even the revisionist Westerns of the late 1960s and 1970s conveyed something, perhaps more than before, in their discourses about the end of the West and the corporatisation of Western activities. I’m not sure that Slow West tells us anything apart from its fairly universal story about a young man’s dream and an older man’s survival instinct. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and in this case Maclean’s film is entertaining and its relatively brief running time (84 minutes) is packed with sounds and images to stimulate. Nick, my viewing companion did also question whether the script did enough to establish the relationship between the two central characters, citing the shaving scene. Are we meant to think of a surrogate father/son relationship? Michael Fassbender will attract many audiences to the film and he gives a strong performance, but I wonder if in this case his star persona is too powerful for the overall balance of the film, especially with his cigar-chomping flashing smile?
Reading through the reviews and audience comments I think that Slow West is being enjoyed in much the same way as the Coen Bros. films – and enjoyed in terms of its dark humour and intelligence.
On a technical note, Robbie Ryan’s images are presented in the old European ‘widescreen’ ratio of 1.66:1. I’m not sure why and because I saw the film in a real cinema with proper tabs and masking I didn’t really notice. But it looks great.
A short clip from the opening sequence in the film: