I was recently on a 3-hour flight and there was nothing good to watch in the TV or Movie sections, so I tapped into the Documentary category to try my luck. And there, like an oasis in the desert, was Amy, the critically acclaimed doco on the tragic life of Amy Winehouse, the troubled jazz singer who died from alcohol-related causes in 2011, at the age of 27.
To be honest, I’ve never been a fan of Winehouse or her music, so I didn’t really know much about her at all except she had a big hit with Rehab and later turned into the butt of jokes for her drug and alcohol addiction. Whenever I saw her on TV or magazines she looked awful, and the natural inclination is to just shake your head and judge her based on what you see — a young woman with he world at her feet but is throwing it all away.
Perhaps with that common negative perception in mind, director Asif Kapadia (Senna) goes to great lengths to show us who Amy Winehouse truly is, behind all the fame and all the tabloid photos — and the picture he paints is a heartbreaking one.
It begins with Amy’s childhood from a broken family and how she came to become a recording artist, then traced her meteoric rise to stardom with Back to Black in 2006 and her descent into darkness thereafter. Depression, self-destructive tendencies, alcohol and drug abuse, and bulimia plays a major role all the way through, and by the end of the 128-minute film I felt like it was almost inevitable that things turned out the way they did. It was as though her darkness and her ability to write great music — music I came to appreciate as the film progressed, especially the personal, cutting lyrics — came hand in hand and fed off one another.
I was utterly amazed by how comprehensive and detailed the movie is. Of course there is archived footage of her live and studio performances, interviews and news clips, but a significant part of the documentary is made up of home video footage — seems people in her life have enjoyed filming her since she was a kid — giving rare insights into her character when she isn’t in front of media cameras. There are also extensive interviews with all the key influences in her life, from parents to best friends to boyfriends to to collaborators to idols to managers and label execs — and all of them are frank and raw.
Almost the entire film is chronological, which tracks her growth and progression, both in musical style and personality. I really enjoyed the footage of her live performances with the lyrics popping up on screen, which always reflect the current stage of her life perfectly. Great job by Kapadia in stringing together all these different pieces to build such a compelling story.
You do get a sense that Kapadia is trying to evoke sympathy — or at least empathy — for Winehouse, but he doesn’t exactly give her a free pass either. The blame goes around, from her absent then excessively present father to the love of her life, Blake Fielder, who is perhaps her most lethal and irresistible drug. These negative influences in her life don’t absolve her of responsibility, but it does help us understand why she ended up the way she did. Winehouse has simply always been weak-willed and needed someone to rein her in — she desperately wanted it — and without that support she would keep gravitating towards self-sabotage.
At the end of the day, Amy is a remarkable documentary, not just because of how much rare and valuable footage, images and sounds it contains, but also the impressive storytelling and filmmaking from Kapadia, who delivers Winehouse’s pain and unique talent with the respect it deserves and the emotional punch it needs. Even though I wasn’t all that interested in Winehouse before, I still think it is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in a long time, and I’m rooting for it to win Best Documentary at the Oscars next month.
4.5 stars out of 5