Was Amy Winehouse more famous for her drug problems, her tempestuous personal life or her music? Her label called the platinum-selling multi-time Grammy winner “the most talented and important musical artist of her generation.” Her incredible potential as a singer-songwriter ended four years ago when, following a stream of collapses and relapses, she died of alcohol poisoning at the age of 27. It was a trauma but not a surprise, the long-expected conclusion of a life that was often miserable in public. She was a bright-burning star who quickly turned to a flaming meteorite.
Asif Kapadia’s terrific documentary “Amy” offers her life story in rich, sometimes-infuriating detail far beyond any news obituary. It parallels the devastating nonfiction of Kapadia’s masterfully edited 2011 “Senna,” which captured the inspiring rise and shocking fatal fall of Brazil’s Formula 1 world champion Ayrton Senna. Here Kapadia weaves together a treasury of home movie footage, from Winehouse’s early teens through the day London medics wheeled her body away from her home. He always steers the story with the best insight and drama from the lives captured on camera at the time. If you are weary of the standard lineup of armchair talking heads, godlike narrator and hindsight graphic charts, this moment by moment approach offers a fresh and thrilling new style.
The home video is gritty at the start, but it introduces us powerfully to a Winehouse we have never met. At 14, she sings happy birthday to a girlfriend, grabbing the camera’s attention and launching the lyrics with a growling, howling, gifted ability far beyond her years. The idea of an old soul in a young body is unavoidable, yet it’s clear that Winehouse needed years of living in order to mature emotionally. We get her gritty upbringing in a working-class family, her impulse to run away from control and hide with friends, her delight at moving out barely in her tweens. It’s all displayed through you-are-there point of view shots and off-camera interviews with friends offering oral history, most tenderly her affectionate first manager, Nick Shymansky.
Along with those friends, we’re introduced to two who seemed to expect much from Winehouse but offered little in return when she needed help the most. Her cab-driver father, Mitch, recognized his increasingly popular, profitable and addicted daughter as a once-in-a-lifetime gravy train, hustling her through quick get-well sessions to concert tours that she became less and less capable of completing. As he says on camera, “She didn’t need to go to rehab.” Her long-running crush with the repulsively awful jailbird junkie Blake Fielder-Civil introduced her to hard drugs, which led her to decorate her inspired handwritten lyrics with cartoon sketches of floating hearts and crack cocaine. After winning at the 2008 Grammys, Amy celebrates with an old friend and then declares, “This is so boring without drugs.”
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The film shows the inevitable finish she stumbled toward for years, but it also demonstrates her touching charm. She’s a vivacious, flirtatious beginner, full of sassy wit. And her deep love of jazz remains through unimaginatively hard times. After a disastrous stadium show in Serbia gets her booed off the stage by thousands, she worries her way through a duet session with her lifelong idol, Tony Bennett. “Don’t worry,” he says, “it always takes me a while to warm up, too.” With his patient support she finally nails, then boomerangs his compliments right back at him. “I’m like you,” she insists. “You’re not like me. I’m like you.” Kapadia’s electrifying film proves Winehouse was actually very different. Her life, career and tragic death were touchingly unique.
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Director: Asif Kapadia.
Running time: 2:08.
Rating: R, for language and drug material.