“You gotta choose your words carefully,” says Amy Winehouse in a new documentary about the late singer. This isn’t the movie about to hit cinemas, though. This is something else entirely: a short film released exclusively on BBC iPlayer this week.
Produced by Sasha Duncan, the documentary spans just 23 minutes, a runtime that seems almost as slight as the singer’s tragically short career, before her death at the young age of 27. But in the shadow of the looming feature-length film, Amy Winehouse In Her Own Words benefits from that small scale.
The title itself emphasises the project’s smart approach, which removes any potential padding to portray her as she presented herself.
The film is threaded together from extracts of footage for the Jazz And Soul Britannia series on BBC Four, BBC One Sessions in 2007, Glastonbury 2004 and 2008, and the 2004 Mercury Music Prize.
On stage, in front of a crowd, is how many will remember her: a fiery talent with a way of singing that seemed to bare everything for all to see. Her music is as infectious as ever, part jazz, part RnB, part pop – each part packed with audible angst and emotion.
On Later with Jools Holland in 2006, we see the pianist compliment her on her songwriting, asking about the background to arguably her most well-known number, Rehab. For many, the song will require no introduction or explanation: her struggles with addiction were plastered all over the media for years during her whirlwind time in the public eye. That focus meant that it was easy for many to do what often happens with celebrities: project onto them.
“I’m very guarded, I know,” she tells a journalist in one interview. It’s in these moments of quiet that the BBC’s documentary really finds itself; with no talking heads to offer their version of events and no linear story, we simply get Winehouse’s take on her own situation, distilled into the brief times that she let her guard down. These encounters, which see her sitting in stairwells, pausing mid-sentence to light a fag, reveal an older side to the famous figure, who is oblivious to the idea that she has crafted a genre, image or following for herself.
“A lot of new music just goes over my head,” she reveals, talking of her love of Gershwin. “I’m like a little old man. Is this cool? Do kids like it?”
She argues her songs are still growing – something that the editing subtly captures, again by not attempting to impose a narrative or perspective upon its subject. Instead, we witness Take the Box as sung back in 2004 and then, later, previously unseen footage of Amy performing Love Is A Losing Game in a BBC One Session from 2007. The difference in singing, stance and mood is striking.
The result a short, but powerful piece of film-making that chooses its words carefully; less a biopic and more an intimate portrayal of an artist, who always seemed partly surprised by the attention she got.
“I was never the leader of a bunch of Jewish girls who like jazz,” she laughs. “Know what I mean?”
Amy Winehouse In Her Own Words is available on BBC iPlayer until 21st July.