December 2007. Amid reports of drug abuse, cancelled concerts, and photos of her wandering the streets of London dazed and barefoot, Amy Winehouse earns six Grammy nominations for her second album Back to Black, including album of the year, record of the year and best new artist.
So it went for Winehouse, the subject of Asif Kapadia’s new documentary Amy – a gifted artist, massively successful but deeply troubled, very publicly unraveling until her death at age 27. Making extensive use of archival footage and photographs (supplemented with occasional location shooting), Kapadia has pieced together an incredibly thoughtful, compelling film, restrained without seeming to withhold and frank without seeming to exploit.
Ultimately, Kapadia’s documentary benefits from how often cameras were trained on Winehouse – from television crews, friends, fans, and the paparazzi – and his choice to not pair that footage with talking heads. While some may disagree with the end result, Kapadia is masterful at layering the voices of those closest to her onto the existing footage while still giving the impression that Winehouse is telling her own story. Kapadia privileges Winehouse’s words and, in particular, her lyrics.
Early in the film, Winehouse is heard saying that she couldn’t write anything that wasn’t personal, and Kapadia spends much of the documentary’s runtime offering her lyrics up as proof. He prints her lyrics across the screen, shows them written out on loose leaf notebook paper, and follows them up with interview soundbites that show just how honest and, at times, amazingly literal they are. The film abounds with examples like that of Mitch Winehouse, Amy’s father, stating got she got over his affair “quick.” “What Is It About Men,” however, begs to differ. You might never listen to songs like “Stronger Than Me,” “Back to Black” and, of course, “Rehab” quite the same way.
Musically, there are moments in Amy that are a pleasure to see, like an acappella performance of “Back to Black” in the studio with Mark Ronson that left me with chills. If the likes of yasiin bey, Questlove, Salaam Remi, and Tony Bennett speaking to her artistry isn’t enough to convince you of how important she was (and could have been), the use of her music throughout should do it.
Throughout the documentary, Kapadia establishes not only Winehouse’s place in the world of music, but music as an essential part of Winehouse’s existence – as necessary as air or water. He makes the case that the further she was pulled from music, the farther she fell, and he is most effective when exploring the role that fame played in Winehouse’s life.
Kapadia is able to evoke the visceral feel of being in moments most of us will never get to (or have to) experience. You’re with Winehouse, overwhelmed by the ridiculousness of walking on stage in front of a cheering crowd at the Brit Awards. And you’re with her, overwhelmed by the violent crush of fame, blinded by the seizure-inducing flash bulbs of the paparazzi.
There are moments like the montage of jokes at Winehouse’s expense from comedians and late night hosts like Jay Leno, Frankie Boyle, Graham Norton, and the previously mentioned George Lopez (with Dave Grohl, of all people, standing behind him laughing) that will leave something that feels a lot like guilt in the pit of your stomach. And there are the moments that will leave you with the unease of watching a close friend make a terrible decision, like Winehouse’s return to a back-in-the-picture (and equally self-destructive) Blake Fielder, a stop-motion reveal that just radiates a menacing sense of dread.
Amy is well-worth watching, but it’s a tragedy. And over the course of two hours, Kapadia resists the urge to offer easy answers or engage in any simple finger-pointing. Mental illness and addiction are complex, as are the ways human beings deal with dysfunction. If you’re interested in culpability, blame falls in one way or another at the feet of almost everyone involved, including Winehouse, but that’s not really the point. The perfect clarity of hindsight may make it all seem obvious now but, if you see Amy, spend some time after thinking about the ways it wasn’t, and the ways in which Winehouse’s story, sadly, isn’t very unique at all.