Rise-and-fall documentaries about pop icons are hardly rarities, but Asif Kapadia’s about short-lived singer Amy Winehouse is notable for the wealth of material it incorporates in telling her story, including lots of home movies as well as news footage, recording-session excerpts, excerpts from television appearances and concert clips. And Chris King has expertly edited it all into a vivid, intense whole. Those who idolized Winehouse during her meteoric career, which lasted only a few years before her death at twenty-seven in 2011, will no doubt embrace it as a testament to her talent and an expression of sorrow over her sad end; along with her records, it will help to keep her memory alive.
And yet as good as it is in technical terms (like Kapadia’s previous film, the race-track bio-documentary “Senna”), “Amy” raises the question of why those of us who weren’t particular fans should join in the group cinema-wake. True, the film strongly suggests that Winehouse’s disastrous decline from the heights wasn’t just a matter of reckless self-destruction. It puts a good deal of the blame on two men in her life. One was her father Mitch who, it implies, glommed onto her growing celebrity and didn’t ensure that she received the help she obviously needed. (In this reading Mitch Winehouse’s book “Amy, My Daughter” would be merely one more attempt to ride her coattails, even if the profits go to charity.) The other is her husband Blake Fielder-Civil, who was not just an enabler to her addictions but seems positively to have encouraged them.
Ultimately, however, any disinterested observer must watch the film with growing consternation about how the young woman, acclaimed by an observer (and late-in-life singing partner) as astute as Tony Bennett for her unparalleled natural skill as a jazz singer, made reckless, self-destructive choices throughout her life—from moving out of her parents’ home when she was only in her mid-teens to falling into the dependence on drugs and alcohol that eventually killed her. As understanding as one might be of the pressures brought by stardom atop the personal struggles every individual must face, Winehouse’s fate can’t be entirely shifted to others. It’s not as though help in dealing with her myriad problems—bulimia, depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, failed or wrong-headed relationships—wasn’t available to her; in the final analysis, she decided not to seek it out, or to follow its prescriptions on the rare occasions when she did.
Setting that aside, however, “Amy” certainly makes a strong case for Winehouse’s musical ability, shown even in early amateur footage as she gives a soulful rendition of “Happy Birthday” or auditions for her first professional contract. (The extensive material on her early days, provided by chums Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert and her first manager Nick Shymansky—a neophyte in the business himself—is among the rarest, and most revealing, in the documentary.) Almost as insightful is the coverage that follows of Winehouse developing her jazz-oriented 2003 album “Frank,” a process in which Shymansky encouraged her to set her poetic scribbling to music. The importance of the words to her songs is emphasized by Kapadia’s habit of printing the lyrics onscreen as a work is heard—a practice that is hardly innovative but is particularly telling here.
From that point the film turns into distinctly less ebullient mode with the preparation of her history-making sophomore effort from 2006, “Back to Black,” which won her world-wide recognition and a slew of awards, including five Grammys. (It also represented the physical makeover that introduced her more glamorous attire and beehive hairdo.) That, unfortunately, was simultaneous with her introduction to Fielder-Civil, which provided inspiration for the songs in the album but also coincided with Winehouse’s use of harder drugs and the precipitous personal decline that culminated in the embarrassing 2011 non-performance in Belgrade (shown here in excruciating detail) that escalated the snarky press coverage her erratic conduct had already generated into a chorus of derision. From there Kapadia covers her recording session with Bennett and her death on July 23.
There’s no doubt that “Amy” is a technically proficient portrait that aims to be appreciative of the singer’s talent and sympathetic to her problems while not papering over the destructive elements of her personality. Your reaction to it, however, will depend not only on your susceptibility to her musical idiom but on your ability to accept her as a damaged person undone by circumstances beyond her control as much as—or more than—by her own bad choices.