Winehouse, Cobain and Elliott Smith have all gotten the biopic treatment – but which comes out on top?
Portraying a dead celebrity through documentary means negotiating the hazy, ethically-charged line between revelatory intimacy and intrusion. And when the icon in question self-destructed through the pressures of public exposure, the contentious ground only grows as to whether such a film can ever be a genuine tribute, or is simply enabling the continued vampiric demands of fanhood and the media. With its premiere in Cannes this week, Amy – director Asif Kapadia’s portrait of troubled singer Amy Winehouse – joins other recent docs Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck on Nirvana’s frontman and Heaven Adores You on Elliott Smith in delving into the life of a musician who spiralled to an early demise. Here’s how each doc approached the task of justifying its own existence.
AMY – ASIF KAPADIA
Director Asif Kapadia relies heavily on archival footage in portraying a descent that is already all too familiar due to its extensive presence in relentless Brit tabloids. It cuts to the quick in exposing the terrifying currency of her talent, especially with the intimate addition of personal voicemails and home video. A tight circle of family, management and husband closes around Amy primarily concerned not with her health but whether she delivers what they require from her. Footage ranges from her father enjoying the limelight of his reality show to Blake Fielder-Civil grasping a partner in addiction and a crowd at her notoriously messy stage appearance in Serbia angrily shouting at her: “Sing or give me my money back.”
While there are voices of insightful reason, such as her hip hop artist friend Yasiin Bey, a picture emerges of a prodigiously brilliant singer whose raw emotional intensity couldn’t be calmed by anyone. Raw, feisty and cutting-humoured, her inability to be artificial and play nice for the press sees her hounded and vilified amid her mental health vulnerabilities and destroy the cause of this attention – her talent and, since music was everything to her, herself.
It’s hardly a new take on the price of fame for the sensitive and offers few revelations on the very publicly distressed star. The printing of her highly personal lyrics across the screen throughout underlines that her forceful jazz songs could have been left to speak for themselves – especially as Kapadia’s eye for the melodrama of the situation uncomfortably echoes that of the paparazzi even as he exposes their lurid exploitation. One of the most poignant comments on Winehouse’s floundering and brief flare of brilliance comes from her idol Tony Bennett: “Life teaches you how to live it, if you can live long enough.”
Amy is out in cinemas 3 July
HEAVEN ADORES YOU – NICKOLAS DYLAN ROSSI
On the other end of the scale, director Nickolas Dylan Rossi plays too distant and safe with his fandom documentary Heaven Adores You on the life of Elliott Smith. The doc tiptoes around the more controversial aspects of the singer, almost omitting reference entirely to the frenzy of speculation around his death. “I’m the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous,” Smith is heard saying early in the film. While Smith's musical development as he hones his voice of low-fi indie melancholy takes centre-stage, pains are taken to point out that the lyrics are only partially reflective of his own personal troubles and substance addiction, while shots of Portland’s urbanscape seek to position him as part of the city’s legacy.
Only an awkwardly inserted title frame sets out the very bare facts of his suicide – but even if this is to redress public obsession that has made Smith’s name synonymous with this bizarre event, it doesn’t dispel the huge mystery. In stabbing himself twice through the heart, an extremely difficult act even the logistics of which raised suspicion toward his girlfriend who is markedly absent from the film, Smith resorted to a level of theatrical spectacle and brutally dark literalism that’s probably impossible to fathom – but Rossi leaves his film feeling flimsy and non-committal by skirting around this.
Heaven Adores You is in select theatres now
KURT COBAIN: MONTAGE OF HECK – BRETT MORGEN
The limitations of Amy and Heaven Adores You only underscore how well director Brett Morgen has risen to the task in pulling off the risky, ambitious Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. While we never really get inside the heads of Smith and Winehouse, the unfettered access granted by Courtney Love to a storage unit containing the Nirvana frontman’s diaries, drawings, tapes and home movies allowed him to assemble a work that is a piercingly intimate window onto Cobain’s thought processes. This is further aided by beautiful animation by Hisko Hulsing that brings Kurt’s journals to visual life.
While the film is family-authorised, with daughter Frances Bean Cobain attached as exec producer, it’s by no means sanitised. The messy aspects of his relationship with Love are writ large but not peddled as fodder for easy blame. Emotional strands of resentment and shame are woven through telling incidents uncovered that hark back to a very young age. Footage of Kurt on smack is not pretty, and Morgen denies any lurid aspect to their inclusion with the argument they accurately depict the grunge icon’s reality and serve as a deterrent and corrective to the glamourised myth. But this is not a film that is moralising or sentimental – rather, it captures the harsh edges and very human nature of this charismatic and gifted man. At the end of the day the film, best played loud, does best of the three as a testament to just how great this pain-infused music really was.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is available to stream now