In her short career, Amy Winehouse stunned the music world as a genius-level jazz vocalist and natural-born songwriter. She was an artist of massive wattage—a feisty North Londoner with a smart mouth and a fragile heart.
In the devastating documentary Amy, director Asif Kapadia tells the story of Winehouse's tilt-a-whirl life and sudden, tragic death. The approach is simple and direct. Voiceover interviews with friends and family are fused with archival images, performance footage and handheld video. Every combination of sound and picture is composed to bring us viscerally into Winehouse’s world.
Kapadia and his producers managed to secure amazing access for their film. Childhood friends and Winehouse's first manager, Nick Shymansky, provided hours of candid home-movie style video footage. The first half of the documentary is flat-out fascinating if you're interested in Winehouse's artistry and incredible music.
We see her performing in small clubs as a young singer on the London jazz scene and working with her producer, Salaam Remi, on new songs. Even as a teenager, her sophistication with melody and phrasing seems almost supernatural. Later, we watch her skills as a songwriter and lyricist emerge. The melodies may be sad, she says, "but I always put a punch line in the song."
That's exactly right, although they were invariably gut punches. Winehouse’s Grammy-winning breakthrough album, Back to Black, is a masterpiece—an aching study of the love song as a bloody wound.
I could have watched the first half of Amy for another 12 hours, but inevitably, the film turns toward a profile of the Winehouse of the tabloid era. The second half follows the singer through rehab stints, public humiliations and a lethally toxic marriage to Blake Fielder-Civil, who introduced her to heroin and crack cocaine.
As the death spiral accelerates, Kapadia stitches together home movies with tabloid news reports and increasingly infrequent concert appearances. Many scenes are hard on the stomach. In one freeze frame, we see in Winehouse’s eyes the raw, demonic hunger of her addictions. The filmmakers hold the image for an excruciating interval. It’s one of the most disturbing compositions I’ve ever seen.
The documentary presents everything at an artistic remove, with implicit critiques of media and society. But it still trades in ghoulish tabloid imagery, and it still feels awful. We already watched Winehouse die in public. Watching it again, in close-up, is painful.
Amy is an intimate and profoundly sad chronicle of an artist chopped down in her prime by fame, disease and personal demons. It's a tremendously powerful film, but one that I can't wholeheartedly recommend seeing—not if you ever loved Winehouse through her music. I had the strangest sensation after watching Amy: I admired it very much and wished I’d never seen it at all.