A crushingly sad documentary about the short and volatile life of Amy Winehouse, who burned bright before a downward spiral of bulimia, drugs and alcohol that led to her death at the age of 27.
I can’t quite believe it’s been almost 15 years since Back to Black, the juggernaut album that catapulted the girl with giant beehive hair and extraordinary rich voice into the superstardom that she ultimately couldn’t handle. But before the rise and fall, Amy treats the viewer to the sight of fresh-faced, bright-eyed Winehouse, a smart, mouthy, enormously talented young woman whose charisma burns right through you. With her genuine connection to the music, love for the old jazz greats, and sharp confessional lyrics, she impresses the audiences and the record company suits alike. She also makes a sadly prophetic remark during one of the interviews, saying that she hopes to never get famous because she would simply go mad.
This Winehouse probably comes as a shock to those whose memories of the singer mostly go back to the later tabloid frenzy. Funnily enough, my experience was almost the opposite: I became a fan after falling in love with Frank, Winehouse’s 2003 debut, a jazzy affair where her confidence as a singer and lyricist was already in full display (heresy alert, I still prefer it to Back to Black, though I’m happy to admit the latter’s superior production). I vividly remember seeing an article in Q magazine a couple of years later, with a photo of rail-thin Winehouse sporting her array of tattoos and her famous hair style, and thinking, wow you’ve changed.
According to the documentary, the big change happened after Winehouse moved to London’s Camden Town and met her future husband Blake Fielder-Civil. Their on-and-off romance was the inspiration for Back to Black’s most sublime songs, but in terms of real life it was a toxic disaster, with Winehouse getting introduced to heroin and crack cocaine. While her own dysfunctional self-destructive traits undoubtedly played a part in her downfall, it’s also fair to say that she was unlucky to be surrounded by the wrong people, starting with her parents. Of course editing can be biased, but it’s hard to shake off a bad feeling when watching Winehouse’s mother admit on camera how she basically shrugged off her daughter’s bulimia, or when her father brings his own camera crew while visiting his clearly fragile daughter post-rehab, and scolds her for not being nice enough to the autograph-seekers. You also wonder what on earth her management was thinking while committing Winehouse to a series of live performances that were bound to crash and burn.
While Amy doesn’t necessarily uncover anything new – after all, the sad facts were all out there for years – Asif Kapadia‘s documentary, pulled together from the archive footage including clips that were shot by Winehouse herself or her closest friends, is remarkable for its sheer intimacy. At times the up-close images of the singer’s personal hell make for an uncomfortable viewing, as do the reminders that having a breakdown as a celebrity makes you a target for easy ridicule by the comedians and TV show hosts. The one bright spot near the end, and a glimpse of what might have been, is the recording of Winehouse’ duet with Tony Bennett, who treats the nervous younger singer in a gentle grandfatherly fashion until she finally warms up and delivers the goods, her talent still undeniable.