Director Asif Kapadia’s Amy breaks your heart right out of the starting gate. The film opens with home video footage of a then fourteen year-old Amy Winehouse, round-faced and goofy in that typical teenage way, acting silly at a friend’s birthday party. Winehouse sucks on a lollipop and mugs for the camera, but when she suddenly launches into a bluesy version of “Happy Birthday,” the iconic, singular voice that made her both a household name and later a cautionary tale reveals itself in striking fashion. It’s the perfect image to open up Kapadia’s brilliant and devastating documentary – that rich, world-weary voice springing from such an incongruously youthful face – and one that takes your breath like a punch to the gut, reminding the viewer of both Winehouse’s remarkable and pure precocious talent and, by comparison, the ensuing tragedy of the downward spiral that would deprive the world of that stunningly beautiful voice all too soon thereafter.
While Amy features many clips and soundbites from interviews with a host of Winehouse’s family, friends, and collaborators conducted after her death, Kapadia eschews a talking-head format and instead relies primarily on footage, both personal and professional, from Amy’s life to tell her story. Those sideline voices thus take a backseat to Amy herself, who visually seems to take up every frame of the film. It’s a smart choice and one that serves to give Winehouse more of a human presence than ever afforded by her extensively publicized and lightning fast rise and fall. The Frank-era displays of Winehouse’s early vocal prowess are impressive, but even more illuminating is the natural earthy charisma and self-possessed confidence she exuded at that early age, commanding intimate jazz club performances and charming the media with her brashness and candor (a clip from an appearance on Jonathan Ross’ show in 2004 is an absolute delight, as is her bratty sassing of an interviewer who dared compared her to fellow Brit-singer Dido). We see, through the lens of her best friend’s video camera, the implosion of her initial relationship with eventual husband Blake Fielder-Civil and later how the fallout from their breakup inspired Winehouse to create her absolutely masterful Back to Black, with footage from that recording session at Mark Ronson’s New York studio providing a superb isolated vocal of the album’s title track.
Though the footage from the nascent days of Winehouse’s career provides a captivating glimpse of a star on the rise, Kapadia’s film is at its most enlightening when the focus shifts to the weeks and months following the release of Back to Black, when she was catapulted into the upper stratosphere of fame and celebrity. Kapadia chooses Winehouse’s 2007 Brit Awards win to highlight the beginning of the ensuing frenzy, slowing down her walk to the stage so that the outstretched arms of the crowd, reaching to touch her as she walks past, seem to form a gauntlet through which her tiny form skittishly pushes through.
It’s as though from that moment on, Amy was doomed to perpetually walk that gauntlet, as in the very next scene, we see her attempt to walk down the street, beset by the flashes of paparazzi cameras on all sides. As Winehouse’s troubles intensified, so too did the intense media scrutiny, often to a predatory extent. When her family and friends attempted to stage an intervention at a UK resort, news outlets and paparazzi were almost immediately set up in every room of the hotel, snapping photos and video of the private conversations being held within. In a later scene, the paparazzi deliberately taunt her until she lashes out and provides the perfect “crazy Amy” photo op and then laugh as she speeds away in the back of an SUV. Kapadia’s expertly culled footage evinces that Winehouse was simply not prepared to cope with that level of fame and the constant attention it wrought (and really, who possibly could be?) and his inclusion of an early interview with Winehouse, where she muses, “I don’t think I’m going to be at all famous. I don’t think I could handle it, I would probably go mad,” is all the more heartbreaking as a result.
While in Kapadia’s view, the white-hot spotlight of celebrity was at least somewhat responsible for the eventual tragedy, Winehouse’s friends and family play a role, as well. Winehouse’s husband, Blake Fielder-Civil particularly is cast in a bad light, an addict and opportunist who admittedly introduced Amy to crack-cocaine and heroin and (at least according to a drug counselor who had met with the both of them in a pre-intake interview) was more interested in keeping the gravy train of money and drugs rolling than in his wife’s well-being. Fielder-Civil doesn’t acquit himself well in either footage or interviews, at one point obnoxiously ordering expensive champagne on his wife’s tab and later extolling his own attractiveness and desirability after their break-up. Amy’s manager, Raye Cosbert (a former promoter she hired after breaking ties with longtime friend and manager Nick Shymansky) also comes off poorly, discouraging a rehab stint in favor of booking performances and tours that his client was increasingly unable to fulfill (footage from some of these gigs are truly devastating, as Winehouse appears ever-more intoxicated and addled, in one performance so clearly fucked up that she claws and scratches at her own face). Winehouse’s parents (who, it must be said, have voiced displeasure with the film and decried it as an inaccurate portrayal) come off as, at best, loving though overly indulgent and clueless (Winehouse’s mother wasn’t overly concerned about her daughter’s bulimia, thinking it to be a phase) and at worst, somewhat mercenary, as when her father Mitch brought his own camera crew to Winehouse’s St. Lucia hideaway, ostensibly to make a film about the realties of coping with an addict child, but seemingly just to keep his own face in the spotlight.
Though many in Winehouse’s inner circle, whether through misguided permissiveness or self-serving greed, failed to provide the help and support she sorely needed, Amy makes it clear that Winehouse ultimately was her own worst enemy. Winehouse repeatedly rejected the support and advice of friends who tried to help, splintering relationships with childhood friends Lauren Gilbert and Juliette Ashby (both of whom still become very emotional when talking about their friend) and former manager Nick Shymansky, who was replaced after demanding Winehouse go to rehab, a conversation that inspired her famous musical retort, “no, no, no.” How little Winehouse was invested in her own recovery is evident, particularly in footage from her February 2008 Grammy win. Temporarily clean, Winehouse could barely muster any excitement about her victory, pulling Ashby on stage and whispering, “Jules, this is so boring without drugs.”
By the end, Amy seemed to hit the self-destruct button on her own career, showing up for a massive performance at a Serbian festival and refusing to sing a note, just walking around the stage and smirking at the thousands of booing attendees. Though she occasionally talked of getting back into the studio to record a new album (leaving an excited voicemail for producer Salaam Remi about all the Wu-tang inspired battle-raps she’d been working on), Winehouse seemed to be over her celebrity entirely, telling her bodyguard that she’d give up all her talent just to be able to walk down the street in peace. Unfortunately, even in death, Winehouse was unable to evade that scrutiny she found so torturous, as the cameras, a permanent fixture outside her Camden home by that point, flash like crazy as her body is carried out by the coroner.
With Amy, Kapadia frames Winehouse as a tragic figure – a Billie Holiday or Janis Joplin, two similarly troubled artists who at least had the benefit of existing in a pre-TMZ age, untouched by the constant, predatory presence of the tabloid media. The widely circulated images of Amy looking wretched and addled served to taint her legacy, unfairly reducing her to a punchline. Kapadia’s greatest gift to Winehouse’s legacy is to reclaim her story and to flesh her out from beehived caricature to a real person, larger than life in talent, but all-too fragile and fallible in the face of her demons.
Rating: 9 out of 10
Amy hits theaters this July
Kimberlee Rossi-Fuchs is a Senior Writer for Pop-Break, regularly covering Game of Thrones, Louie, Futurama, and Boardwalk Empire, as well as other delectable nuggets of TV, film, and music throughout the year. Since graduating with Highest Honors from Rutgers University with a degree in English, Kimberlee currently finds herself in a financially comfortable, yet stifling corporate environment where her witty and insightful literary and pop culture references are largely met with confused silence and requests to, “Get away from me, weirdo.” Still, she’s often thought of as a modern-day Oscar Wilde (by herself) and one day hopes her wit, charm, and intellect (again, self-perceived) will make her a very wealthy, very drunk woman. She’s also the mother of a darling little boy, Charlie Miles (aka Young Chizzy) who she hopes will grow up to not be too embarrassed of all of the baby pics she relentlessly shares of him on various social media sites.