Because the last few years of her all-too-short life were defined more by sordid stories of drug abuse and alcoholism constantly appearing in the tabloids, it may be easier for some to remember the late Amy Winehouse for little more than the pop culture punchline she became, rather than as the singularly-talented artist and humble, down-to-earth human being that she was. Film maker Asif Kapadia (2010’s Senna) seeks to rectify this with his latest documentary work Amy, which utilizes everything from recorded voice mail messages to archival and home video to footage from live appearances and televised performances to put forth a telling of Winehouse’s story that has her voice, her thoughts, and her feelings as front and center as possible. This is Winehouse telling her own story, supplemented by observations from those who knew her best as well as those she worked and collaborated with, and the resulting film is a piece of cinematic art as powerfully poignant as the music Winehouse gave to the masses that came to idolize her.
Kapadia’s film takes audiences chronologically from the years preceding the release of her debut album “Frank” in 2003 through her international breakout success with 2006’s “Back to Black” to her final years, marked by her struggles with substance abuse and her relationship with her then-husband Blake Fielder, who she married in 2007 and who divorced her in 2009 while serving a prison term. Kapadia’s thesis seems to be that Winehouse, who never saw herself as a celebrity, never believed that she’d become a worldwide star and certainly never wished for that status (she even claimed somewhat prophetically that she’d go mad if she ever found herself in that situation) might have survived her self-destructive patterns of behavior had the right people around her put their foot down and told her “No” and “This has to stop” at several specific pivotal moments in her life. The numerous contributors to the film lending their recollections and observations, including but not limited to Fielder, Winehouse’s parents and lifelong friends, her first manager, Nick Shymansky, the producers of her hit albums Salaam Remi (“Frank”) and Mark Ronson (“Back to Black”), and peers such as yasiin bey (Mos Def) and Tony Bennett. When those contributions are pieced together with Winehouse’s own recorded thoughts and musings as well as the lyrics to songs both well-known and unreleased, a picture comes together of a bright, talented, vivacious young artist whose upbringing was perhaps too permissive and unstructured, who suffered from and went untreated for depression from an early age and believed she didn’t need professional help because crafting music and performing was her therapy, and who was prone to addiction and binging, leading to bulemia, heavy marijuana use prior to her stardom, heavy cocaine and crack cocaine usage during the heyday of her career, and heavy alcohol abuse throughout. Her spiral downward from the heights of success and stardom she reached at such an early age — she was 23 when she won five Grammys for “Back to Black” in 2008 — is harrowing and heart-rending, particularly because Kapadia takes time in the film’s first hour to introduce audiences to the teenager, the fierce friend and charming young woman she was before it all went wrong, thus providing some much needed balance to the film to keep it from being entirely funereal.
In addition to the somewhat implicit indictments of particular individuals around Winehouse who come away looking particularly responsible for the eventual tragedy, either because they enabled her self-destructive behavior or didn’t do enough to curtail it, there’s a not-so-subtle finger pointed at worldwide media and its treatment of celebrities, particularly the paparazzi in the UK who came to stalk Winehouse daily and who provided the material for the tabloids to regularly skewer her and portray her as nothing more than an entitled, out-of-control degenerate squandering her youth and her talent on drugs and bad decisions. The depiction of how quickly the tone of Winehouse’s media coverage turns from admiration of a one-of-a-kind talent with her own eclectic sense of style and substance to an easy target for late night television hosts and comedians is startling and brutal, but does not feel exaggerated in any way — time-compressed, perhaps, but not exaggerated.
Of all the elements of Kapadia’s approach to the material that make Amy stand out from other similar documentaries, the one that perhaps stands out the most is his omission of any sort of footage of sit down, face-to-face interviews with the film’s contributors. Audiences will hear their voices, and their names appear on screen so that it’s clear whose thoughts they are listening to, but those voices become voice-over narration for video footage or photo montages of Winehouse herself, thus keeping her always the focus of the production. In addition, Amy’s own music provides almost a secondary commentary track of sorts; as her songs were almost always inspired by her personal experiences, suddenly the real-life inspiration for songs such as “Stronger Than Me”, “Rehab”, and “I’m No Good”, as well as their connections to her overall state-of-mind as she wrote them, comes into sharp focus, and their impact becomes all the more plaintive. Kapadia utilizes the lyrics visually, either showing them in Amy’s own handwriting from her many songwriting notebooks to having them appear on screen as text alongside her as she’s delivering them in performance, and it further enhances the impact of each and every one of those words.
Of course, it’s important to note that Amy is certainly no way an “objective” view of Winehouse’s life and experiences, nor is it meant to be. Certainly there are other sides to this story and other ways it could be told that might have lead to audiences coming away from it with different conclusions. What is clear that Kapadia as a film maker and an artist himself was deeply sympathetic to Winehouse and her struggles, and crafted his film first and foremost to help viewers get to know Amy Winehouse in a very human and humane way. Those who were fans of her music and her style might be the ones who have the hardest time watching what Kapadia has produced, because the loss will no doubt suddenly feel raw and immediate once again. But even those who went totally unaware of her musical gifts and accomplishments, those who only knew her from the jokes made about her and the images of her splashed garishly across the covers of tabloids everywhere, may find themselves charmed by her vibrant persona and charisma, awestruck by her astounding talent, and eventually heart-broken by the course of events that lead to her leaving this world far, far too soon.
Either way, the film Amy, like Winehouse herself, proves to be unforgettable. It’s a film experience that should not be missed.
Directed by Asif Kapadia.
Running Time: 124 minutes
Rated R for language and drug material.