Documentary director Asif Kapadia (Senna) has made a behind the curtain chronicle of the skyrocket rise and calamitous fall of the powerhouse British singer Amy Winehouse, dead of lethal alcohol intoxication at age 27, and it stuns, mesmerizes, and grips. The movie is so intimate and revelatory, you may leave the theater feeling like you’re mourning the loss of a close friend. People around Winehouse must have sensed that she was unique pretty early on. That allows Kapadia to dip into a very deep pool of home movies and videos provided by friends, family, colleagues, and lovers rather than merely rely only on footage from concerts, TV appearances and the burble of on screen talking heads.
We first get to experience Winehouse in her north London teenage years as provocative, cheeky, and rebellious, someone with a distinct presence who definitely knew she could sing. Deeply affected by her philandering, taxi cab driver father’s abandoning her when she was nine years old, Winehouse becomes unmanageable to her mother Janice, who let her own mother take over. “You should be a tougher mum; you’re not strong enough to say ‘stop’,” Winehouse says, begging for someone, anyone, to set boundaries as she parties, sleeps around, and tries to figure out who she is. It’s through seeing Winehouse addressing the camera and talking to friends and family like this that make the whole thing feel as much like a biopic as it does a doc.
As her star ascends meteorically with her first record contract and two subsequent albums, controversy-rocked concert appearances, and critics comparing her singing style to that of jazz icons like Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, the vultures descend. They’re lethal. There are money-grubbing but apparently well-meaning blunderers like her father (who reemerges to become her mentor, manager and exploiter) and even less defensible ones like arrogant Blake Fielder-Civil, who introduced her to hard drugs and whom she married, ignoring all the warning signs. It’s painful to watch Winehouse flinch in the constant glare of public adulation and scrutiny. It’s tough to see her desperation to find a male authority figure who won’t run out on her. But it’s even worse to watch the mental and physical deterioration from fame, drugs, depression, and booze that the film documents, up close and highly personal.
Despite highly publicized criticism of Amy by Winehouse’s last boyfriend and by her father — the latter memorialized by the singer-songwriter herself in her anthem “Rehab” — as Kapadia portrays the star and her decline there are no easy villains or culprits. Amy gives ample evidence of the brilliance of its subject’s massive talent and it respects her by leaving her an enigma, allowing the viewer to decide whether the blazing star could have been saved from chaos and ruin. What a loss.