Sunday, January 7, 2018

A24 A-to-Z: #23."Amy" (2015)

Scene from Amy
In case you didn't know, A24 is one of the great purveyors of modern cinema. Since 2013, the studio has found a way to innovate independent cinema by turning each release into an event. As a result, A24 A-to-Z will be an ongoing series that looks at every release from the studio by analyzing its production history, release, criticisms, and any awards attention that it might've received. Join me on a quest to explore the modern heroes of cinema by exploring every hit and miss that comes with that magnificent logo. They may not all be great, but they more than make A24 what it is and what it will hopefully continue to be for ears to come.

Released: July 3, 2015 
Release Number: 23
Directed By: Asif Kapadia
Starring: Amy Winehouse, Mitch Winehouse, Mark Ronson
Plot: Archival footage and personal testimonials present an intimate portrait of the life and career of British singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse.
Major Awards:
-Best Documentary (Won)
-Best Documentary (Won)
-Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film (Nominated)
-Golden Eye (Nominated)
-Queer Palm (Nominated)
-Best Music Film (Won)

In just two years, A24 had done an incredible amount of work in exploring what cinema has to offer. However, there was one area that they had year to explore: the documentary. With director Asif Kapadia's Amy, they debuted into the nonfiction narrative game with a powerful story of Amy Winehouse. She was a singer whose career was cut short by a series of unfortunate circumstances ranging from drugs to toxic relationships. While the story was sad, Amy helped to set new precedents for A24 with a surprise success by becoming the film's second Oscar-nominated film from 2015 and one of the rare box office success stories for a documentary. Amy could've easily been a simple tribute to a talented singer gone too soon, but it ended up being a greater narrative about the struggles of fame that appealed to audiences who didn't know they wanted it. Which, you know, is par for the course for the studio after 23 films.

In a lot of ways, the beginning point is a spoiler for the film. Amy Winehouse was a singer known for her sultry jazz style, which lead her sophomore album "Back to Black" to become an international success with the song "Rehab." Following her quick rise to fame, she found trouble handling fame and was criticized by a prodding public for being a trainwreck. She died at the age of 27 from alcohol poisoning, and created a mythological celebrity status on par with Nirvana's Kurt Cobain almost 20 years prior. Her brief output and acclaimed work made her a curious figure in pop culture, and it's likely what inspired Universal Music to approach Senna director Asif Kapadia, who was busy working on a London Olympics 2012 documentary at the time. After negotiating with producer James Gay-Rees, he agreed to do it.

This wasn't going to just be a documentary using archival footage to tell the narrative. Kapadia was dedicated to exploring the entire life of Winehouse no matter how personal. This included interviewing 100 people that were close to the singer, including her parents Mitch and Janis Winehouse. They gave Kapadia every right to be as objective as he wanted to be, as long as it was honest. Along with the interviews came the archival footage, which was largely unseen before the documentary and featured Amy Winehouse's life from her teenage years singing at birthday parties to her later and more tragic days. There was also footage of her recording many songs that appeared on her two albums "Frank" and "Back to Black" as well as several unreleased songs, including a cover of "Moon River." Kapadia claimed that he wanted the music to drive the story, which in part explains why the lyrics are displayed prominently on screen at different points throughout.

The film had a special screening of Cannes, at which point Kapadia announced that Amy would have a release sometime in 2015. Once A24 got hold of it, the marketing slowly began to roll out. The first teaser trailer premiered at a pre-Grammy ceremony with other trailers and posters appearing gradually. They would come to emphasize the many facets of Winehouse's life, whether it was her aspirations as a teenager or her later thoughts on depression and fame. The marketing sought to capture her as a compelling yet tragic force, as someone who died too young. It also incorporated her music, sometimes featuring clips of her performing. The viral approach was a success, as the average trailer would rack up over a million views in under 24 hours. The interest in an Amy Winehouse documentary was there, but would audiences show up for it?

Amy wasn't just going to be a modest hit for A24. In Britain, it set the record for highest opening weekend for a British documentary. During this time, it also became the highest grossing of all time, doing better than other big hits like Fahrenheit 9/11 and March of the Penguins. The film would end up being an incredible success at the box office, earning $22 million internationally. The film is currently in the Top 25 highest grossing documentaries and was the second highest grossing film for A24 to that date behind Ex-Machina. The film also managed to win quite a few accolades, including A24's first Grammy Award. She also won her second posthumous BRIT Award for British Female Solo Artist. Of course, it was both a second and a first for the studio itself, winning its second Oscar for 2015 after Best Visual Effects for Ex-Machina. However, it was their first (and as of 2017 only) Best Documentary win.

On critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, the film received a 95%, also making it one of A24's highest rated movies. Many agreed with sentiments similar to Jim Carroll who claimed that "It's a shockingly sad film, a reminder that great artists are often troubled beings and that the pop world is not a safe place for them." Rain Jokinen of SFist would compliment the general production, stating that "If you're a fan of documentaries, the film is worth seeing -- even if you aren't a fan of Winehouse's music -- because it's a remarkable piece of curation." Among the few who disliked the film was Wesley Morris of Grantland, who wrote that "There are a couple of scenes in Asif Kapadia's new Amy Winehouse documentary, Amy, that make the fame-industrial complex seem rock-bottom awful." It seemed that the affinity for Amy depended in part on the interest in a music documentary in general, or how it chose to depict one artist's personal struggles.

However, there wasn't a person who hated the film more than Mitch Winehouse, Amy's father. It is true that he was initially game to working with Kapadia and crew to produce an accurate documentary. The issue soon became that he didn't like what came out of the process, in part because he was depicted as the villain, for example bringing a film crew into a place where Amy didn't want them. He claimed to have almost wanted to sue Kapadia over the film, but soon decided to produce a documentary on his daughter that he felt was more accurate. Even then, he was conflicted because he liked parts of what he saw. He claimed that the music and footage of her performing was beautiful and should be seen, but the narrative was all wrong. When Amy won Best Documentary at the Oscars, he was quick to Twitter to remind the world that he still hated the movie. 

Amy was A24's first documentary, and as such set the bar for what to expect from them. There hasn't been too many examples comparatively in the two years since this film's release. However, it was a powerful, emotional journey that worked in part because of subject, but also as evidence that the studio could market any film no matter how niche. Amy was part of the renaissance and was something that would help to establish the studio as the best that indie cinema has to offer. Up next was the first returning director from the Freshman class of 2013, and the only flop in the studio's Oscar 2015 campaign season. It was a film about another icon who died prematurely that explored themes of life. Up next is the story of "Infinite Jest" author David Foster Wallace and his struggle with fame in the drama from director James Ponsoldt called The End of the Tour

Up Next: The End of the Tour (2015)

No comments:

Post a Comment