Thoughts on “Montage of Heck” and “Amy”
Let me begin by saying that music docs are my favorite form of story telling when they explore the creative process, the complicated dynamics among talented people, and how life influences the music. “Some Kind of Monster” is a remarkable look at the inner workings of Metallica as the aging band records a new album and struggles with the pressure to exceed the expectations of their fans. “I’m Trying to Break Your Heart” chronicles the making of the band Wilco’s fourth album and the subsequent break up of two long-time collaborators. In my favorite film of all time, “Gimme Shelter,” the audience rides along with the Rolling Stones during their 1969 US tour and is not only privy to intimate moments in the studio with the band but also bears witness to the exact moment the free-loving hippie sixties ended.
That said, I’m having a problem with the alarming trend of posthumous documentaries about troubled artists. Last week I watched both “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” from director Brett Morgen and “Amy” from director Asif Kapadia (who also did the terrific “Senna” doc in 2010) about Amy Winehouse. Watching these films back-to-back, the paths of the two subjects are undeniably similar. Both Cobain and Winehouse were extremely talented young artists who wrote songs that were intensely personal. Both defined success as being able to play music for a living, and both shunned the media machine that thrust them in the spotlight. Both suffered troubled childhoods and addictive personalities, and as a result, neither had the tools to properly insulate themselves from the stress of celebrity. They both slid into the depths of drug abuse as a way to escape the clutches of public eye. Tragically, both died at the age of 27.
My hat goes off to the tenacity of the archival crews who sifted through hundreds of hours of footage, audio recordings and stacks of photos. Morgen employs some really interesting and beautiful visual techniques to reveal the troubled life of Kurt Cobain in “Montage of Heck.” The animated sequences sprinkled throughout the film breathe life into Cobain’s own drawings and doodles and underscore pivotal moments of his life. I’d love to see more of that technique used in future docs. At its best, “Amy” points to the road map of real life events that inspired Winehouse’s music. The song “Rehab” is born from a failed intervention that her first manager tried to enforce but was ultimately undermined by Winehouse’s own father. The event made its way into her lyrics: “I ain’t got the time, and if my daddy thinks I’m fine, he tried to make me go to rehab and I said no, no, no.”
Despite their innovative storytelling methods, at some point these films cease to be a cautionary tale or an artful rumination on the life and times of a talented voice cut short and become voyeuristic train wrecks. The public realm vs the private plays out with the inclusion of interviews from work colleagues to family and friends, paparazzi photos, and the most intimate, personal photos, footage and diary entries. I hang my head at the irony: These were talented people who tried to avoid the spotlight when they were alive (albeit with their own faulty methods), and now we’ve made films that reveal their innermost thoughts and highlight their flaws at times when they were most vulnerable.
Listen to the lyrics of their songs, and it’s all there – family heartbreak, alienation of youth culture, and the overwhelming desire to be loved yet left alone. Yes, these films explore their lives with unprecedented depth, but I didn’t learn anything new. I just wanted to take a shower.
At the Q&A following the screening of “Amy,” Kapadia acknowledged that the production was given access to Winehouse’s computer, on which they found some haunting self-portraits taken during the height of her drug addiction. Kapadia said that they debated whether or not to include the photos, and in the end he felt they were necessary to represent just how far she had deteriorated. The images were indeed disturbing, but her addiction was very well documented by her public appearances and performances, so the material to tell that story already existed. I doubt very much that she would have wanted those photos made public. To include them feels like an invasion of privacy – the very likes of which drove her to drugs and alcohol in the first place.
One could argue that two films don’t count as a trend, so before it becomes a “genre,” we filmmakers should contemplate how much is too much. I’m not suggesting that we sugarcoat the details of a troubled life, but let’s ask ourselves the right questions: what information is necessary to advance the story, and what is sensational? When we accept the task of telling someone’s life through documentary film or television, there is a double responsibility to tell the story as truthfully as possible and to do so with dignity and respect. Is it right to exploit these two tormented artists who can no longer speak for themselves? I imagine both Cobain and Winehouse would have hated this.