Review: The tragedy and talent of Amy Winehouse's life unfolds in powerful doc 'Amy'

Posted by · 8:10 am · May 16th, 2015

CANNES – There are two moments that stand out the most in Asif Kapadia's new documentary “Amy.” They will haunt you.

The first finds its subject, Amy Winehouse, in a London television studio waiting to perform via satellite on the 50th Grammy Awards. While viewers around the world only saw her response to winning Record of the Year for “Rehab,” the filmmaker has gotten access to the footage that captures Winehouse's awe as two of her idols, Tony Bennett and Natalie Cole, walk on stage to present her category. She is saucer-eyed and euphoric looking at her father Mitch Winehouse in the audience and telling him like a child, “It's Tony Bennett!” When she's announced as the winner, the small crowd of friends and family go wild and she jumps into a group hug with her band. This win is even more poignant as we've previously learned Island Records, Winehouse's label, made her sign an agreement to get clean or they would not let her perform on what has been billed as “Music's Biggest Night.”

During the celebration she sees her childhood friend Juliette Ashby, who is incredibly emotional that Winehouse, who has already experienced a lifetime of lows at the tender age of 24, has earned such acclaim. Kapadia shows Winehouse pulling her offstage, but it's Ashby's recollection that stabs the heart. “This is so boring without drugs,” Winehouse told her.

The second comes months later as Winehouse is drowning again in her addictions, holed up in her Camden, London home. She takes photos of herself with the webcam on her computer. She looks horrific. She is a shell of the snappy singer who won the world over with the soulful voice of a woman three times her age.

Within two years, at just 27-years-old, she would pass away from complications of a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse.

Kapadia, who earned critical acclaim for his racing documentary “Senna,” paints a portrait of Winehouse”s life beginning with the amateur footage her first manager, Nick Shymansky, recorded of his teenage prodigy. Shymansky is just one of many who contributed unseen footage of Winehouse. Considering how her every move was chronicled by thousands of paparazzi over the years, it”s remarkable how much new insight into Winehouse Kapadia is able to present. In many ways it makes “Amy” a poignant bookend to the Kurt Cobain doc “Montage of Heck,” which debuted at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and also included a wealth of unseen home movies.

At a young age Winehouse showed a love for jazz music and songwriting. When Shymansky first met her she never expected to be a pop star. She never wanted to be famous. She would have been happy singing in small jazz clubs. However, like almost all the men and women who worked with her on her music career specifically he realized early on that she had an addiction problem. Along with Ashby and a few other longtime friends they attempted to stage an intervention to get her to go to rehab before her signature album “Back to Black” had even been written (and, yes, it”s the genesis of her famous lyric in “Rehab”). What stood in their way was her father, Mitch Winehouse.  

A participant in the documentary, Mitch simply didn”t believe his daughter had a problem. Because he wouldn”t make her, Winehouse refused to go. Along with with Winehouse”s ex-husband Blake Fielder, they consistently incriminate themselves as the most significant enablers of Winehouse”s addiction. Fielder introduced Winehouse to crack for the first time after they were married and provides personal video footage of Winehouse at her lowest points. She”s so high that she seems like a completely different person than the star we”ve seen bluntly speak to the camera. Granted, the negative influence of both men in her life was known before this film was made, but it”s the new footage and their apparent lack of remorse that is so striking.

“Amy” also turns the camera back on the viewer who saw, mocked and ignored Winehouse”s descent as it transpired across the media landscape. How could the world collectively denigrate a woman whose addiction was destroying her? In this era of reactionary social media it”s a warning to all of us to be wary of stoning the next Amy in the digital town square.  

Kapadia received remarkable access to all the key people in Winehouse”s life. Because he wants to focus on his subject he avoids the talking heads motif and only features their thoughts in voice over. It mostly works, although you can argue it slightly diminishes the audience”s reaction to Winehouse”s inevitable passing at the end of the film.  

What this review hasn”t touched upon, though, is Winehouse”s most important legacy: her music. And Kapadia absolutely nails it. He intersperses many of Winehouse”s most memorable songs (as well as some of her early compositions) throughout the doc. As we hear each song the lyrics appear on screen, reminding the viewer of what a brilliant songwriter she was.

As you might suspect, music was the most important part of Winehouse”s life and the film makes the point that she was often happiest in the recording studio. Of all the footage Kapadia was provided, a standout moment features Winehouse recording “Back to Black” for the first time. We hear her vocal with the backing track barely audible. It”s so iconic you get goosebumps just hearing it. And after she belts out the end of the song she stops, looks at producer Mark Robson in the control booth and smiles.

“Amy” opens in limited release on July 10.

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