The name Amy Winehouse evokes myriad images: the beehive hair, the multiple tattoos, the bold eye make-up, those paparazzi shots of drug-fueled hangovers. British director Asif Kapadia’s captivating documentary on the singer-songwriter goes beyond the clichés to provide an intimate, layered portrait of the troubled artiste who died of alcohol poisoning in 2011 at the age of just 27. Even if – like me – you haven’t been a fan of her music, this film will break your heart.
Drawing you in from its very opening moments, the film establishes her blazing talent through home-video footage recorded in 1998, of Amy as an impish teenager, singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to a friend, impersonating Marilyn Monroe’s famous performance. These bits, along with a wealth of private videos provided by her family and close friends, allow us a glimpse of the talented, intelligent, charismatic young woman before she hit the big-time.
The film’s narrative is a familiar one: her stratospheric rise to fame at a young age, exploited by those closest to her, a growing dependence on drugs and alcohol, a life played out in full public view courtesy the relentless tabloid press, and then her death. One of the great strengths of this film is that Kapadia never forces his viewpoint; he mixes archival footage, home videos, and interviews skillfully to present the most wholesome view of Amy’s life and its unraveling. Sure some people come out looking bad – her husband Blake Fielder who reveals it was him who got her addicted to heroin and smuggled drugs to her when she was in rehab, her father Mitch Winehouse who is seen bringing along a camera crew to a private vacation that was meant to help her recuperate, her manager who allowed her to go on stage while she was high for a concert in Belgrade that naturally ended disastrously.
To be fair, the film isn’t as gloomy as it sounds. The younger Amy, before the drugs, was charming and unmistakably funny, as one private video reminds us. It’s footage of her pretending to be a Spanish maid as she shows a friend around a holiday apartment in Mallorca. And then there is the music. You’ll be spellbound as she belts out tracks in that big, blessed voice. Kapadia’s masterstroke is to put her lyrics on screen as she sings them, so we can see for ourselves how personal they are, and how reflective of her tumultuous life. The video recording of her duet with her idol Tony Bennett is one of the best bits in the film, also revealing her innate integrity to her craft.
Like the director’s terrific previous documentary Senna, on the life of Formula One legend Ayrton Senna, Amy humanizes a fascinating figure that deserved a more thoughtful study than the headlines provided. This is, in fact, an even stronger film – a carefully observed portrait of an abundantly talented but potentially fragile woman singed by the unforgiving glare of the spotlight.