Toward the end of “Amy,” Asif Kapadia’s devastatingly sad documentary on the life of neo-soul singer Amy Winehouse, the screen flashes a succession of images taken by Winehouse late at night in front of her computer. She’s gaunt, hollow-eyed, a wreck; one of the most famous people on the planet when the photos were taken, she seems almost existentially alone.
“Amy” doesn’t depart from the standard behind-the-music template, but it does deepen the format immeasurably, through the intimacy of its archival materials and the focus of its approach. Kapadia, who made the excellent 2010 race-car bio-doc, “Senna,” interviews plenty who were there, from Winehouse’s loyal childhood chums Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert and her first manager and close friend Nick Shymansky to the singer’s father, Mitch Winehouse, to music industry friends such as Yasiin Bey (better known as Mos Def) and Winehouse’s fatherly bodyguard, Andrew Morris. Aside from Bey, though, the interviews are conducted primarily off-camera, so the singer is allowed to take center screen as she morphs from meteoric talent to supernova to dark star.
Shymansky, who met Winehouse when he was 19 and she was 16, toted a videocamera everywhere in those days, and the early sequences of “Amy” are heartbreaking in the way they capture a lumpy, stroppy North London girl who just about bursts into flame when she opens her mouth to sing. Kapadia discreetly time-stamps each scene so we can chart the long slope up and down, and he lets Winehouse’s lyrics, stretched and slurred in performance, unfurl in graceful script across the screen.
Initially, she made do with covers of her beloved jazz singers and ’50s crooners, but when Shymansky suggested she write her own songs, her neo-soul turned into something very modern and close to the bone. “My alibi for taking your guy / History repeats itself, it fails to die / Animal aggression is my downfall / I don’t care about what you got, I want it all.” Those lines from “What Is It About Men?” read strikingly enough on the page, but to hear them cascade from Winehouse’s soul is to bear witness to a life-consuming force.
The film’s midsection, in which Winehouse secures a record contract, records 2003’s “Frank,” and embarks on tours and televised performances, makes the case for her talent, which was immense and unique. Winehouse was an untrained singer but not an undisciplined one — not until the drugs took hold — and she shared with artists like Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, and Barbra Streisand an ability to channel volcanic emotions without ever quite losing control, the vibrato wobbling but refusing to spill over the top. If all you know of Winehouse is “Rehab” and the car-wreck of her life, the performance sequences in “Amy” have the power to convert you to a freshly mourning fan.
With the 2006 detonation of “Rehab” and the “Back to Black” album, Winehouse ascended to music-industry heaven and tabloid hell. She won five Grammys and married Blake Fielder-Civil, the boyfriend who had introduced her to crack cocaine. She saw him go to prison for an incident in which a bar owner was assaulted, and she slipped further into substance abuse while he was away. Kapadia goes to the celebrity news footage here, and it is terrifying; from this point on, every scene of the singer in public is a seizure of flashbulbs, the screen writhing with paparazzi. The culture turned against her; “Amy” shows Jay Leno welcoming her onto “The Tonight Show” to sing and, a year or so later, making nasty jokes about a woman who was clearly and seriously ill. But we were all doing the same thing then. The paparazzi weren’t there to cover her rise but her fall, and if they helped bring it about, it still sold papers.
That said, the movie depicts Winehouse as a victim of her own addictions and insecurities, a stubborn user abetted by enablers on all sides: Fielder-Civil; the manager-promoter, Raye Cosbert, who kept pushing her back out on the road; the father who decided the Amy Winehouse gravy train was more important than getting his daughter into rehab. Mitch Winehouse has disavowed this movie and his portrayal in it, but it’s hard to argue with the scene where he shows up on St. Lucia, where Amy has fled from the hounds of the global media, with a reality-show camera crew of his own.
Some people are born to handle unimaginable fame: At 25, Taylor Swift wraps the worldwide media around her finger as though it were her birthright. Winehouse, by contrast, was wary of mass success and unprepared when it arrived. Singer Tony Bennett — one of Amy’s idols, he is seen calming her nerves during the recording sessions for 2011’s “Duets II” — hits the bull’s-eye when he tells the filmmakers, “She was a natural, true jazz artist, and a jazz artist doesn’t like 50,000 people in front of them.” Late in her brief life, Winehouse tried a comeback tour, and Kapadia has footage of her onstage at an outdoor concert in Serbia, sitting on the speakers, half in the bag, and refusing to sing. The crowd laughs, chants, turns ugly, and Winehouse gazes back at them with a mysterious half-smile. It’s as though she had become a Bartleby of rock ’n’ roll: the star who preferred not to.
Five weeks later, on July 23, 2011, she was dead of alcohol toxicity at age 27. Could it have ended any other way? There are those that our celebrity machine — made up of all our collective eyeballs — senses are headed for self-destruction and is happy to help on their way. The lasting tragedy that “Amy” captures isn’t that Winehouse was ill equipped to handle fame. It’s that once she got it, she never stood a chance.
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