When someone is larger than life, we, by definition, tend to forget that they can and will eventually die. Incredible talent will lead us sooner or later to feel as though a person is unreal—a poster to be hung on a wall, maybe. Certainly something other than human. And so we laugh when the wrong combination of mental illness and substance abuse causes someone like Amy Winehouse to become a late-night punchline, and we gawk at the paparazzi photos of them wandering the streets bloodied and dazed, because we have forgotten that behind the celebrity is a real, flesh-and-blood person in need of some serious help.
So yes, when Winehouse finally did die in 2011, there was shock (although no one who had watched her self-destruct for years could honestly claim to be surprised), and there was guilt. Maybe if we hadn’t been so eager for a Back to Black followup, she wouldn’t have felt so much pressure. Maybe if we’d ignored the tabloid stories about her, they would have left her alone. Maybe.
That guilt is certainly present in Senna director Asif Kapadia’s new documentary, Amy. Some may say the lion’s share of it belongs to her father, Mitch (who has publicly denounced the film’s portrayal of him and is reportedly working on his own movie as some sort of rebuttal). We hear friends recount how he single-handedly shut down the first attempt to get the singer into treatment, and we even hear Mitch himself say his daughter “didn’t need to go to rehab.” (Although he claims Kapadia edited out the part where he said “at that time.”) We hear about how he pushed her to go out on tour when she was in no condition to do so. We watch him argue with Amy after bringing a camera crew to St. Lucia, where she had gone to escape and get clean, to film a special called My Daughter, Amy. But what really makes Amy so completely heartbreaking is the revelation that it wasn’t just Mitch.
You’ll cringe when you hear Winehouse’s mother recall how she didn’t really do anything about her daughter’s bulimia because she “thought it was just a phase” or when it’s asserted that, while the singer was lying in a hospital bed after an overdose, her manager at the time—instead of canceling her upcoming tour—made a comment about how many musicians are still able to function on heroin. And when, towards the end, Kapadia refuses to cut away from the singer’s disastrous final concert in Belgrade, unflinchingly presenting us with footage that is very difficult to watch, you’ll be dumbfounded that anyone could possibly look at the person on stage and think that she belonged in front of thousands of people instead of in the back of an ambulance.
But, mercifully, Amy is so much more than a tragedy. From the opening scene, home video of a 14-year-old Winehouse belting out “Happy Birthday” at a party as her stunned friends fall silent, the tone is set: this is a celebration of an impeccable talent. Performance footage—from those teenage beginnings, to the Frank era and through the whirlwind of Back to Black—serves to remind more casual fans that Winehouse wasn’t just “Rehab”; on top of that voice, she was a compelling lyricist, a guitarist, a perfectionist in the studio.
Her personality—whip-smart, self-deprecating, funny as hell—is showcased through old interviews and a generous amount of home movies. When a journalist compares her to Dido, Winehouse furrows her brow in mock agreement, nodding as the reporter keeps rambling. She becomes more and more cartoonish in her sarcastic attentiveness before eventually picking her teeth and offering an exasperated sigh. When Jonathan Ross asks her if her management company has tried to mold her at all, she grins and cracks, “Yeah, one of them tried to mold me into a big triangle shape.” At another point, we see her give a tour of her apartment to a friend, all the while staying in-character as a heavily accented maid. Even her audition for Island Records is tinged with humor—accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, she croons a tale of infidelity that includes lines like “he looked like you, but I heard love is blind.”
Kapadia wisely puts his subject front-and-center; friends, family members and music industry associates are all interviewed for the film, but nearly all of them are presented as voiceovers rather than talking heads. Even when others are speaking, it’s impossible to take your eyes off Winehouse in Amy. He has a way of making her reality feel cinematic, lingering in slow motion as she looks back at the paparazzi and rolls her eyes after rushing into a car amid a flurry of camera flashes. When she wins the Grammy for Record of the Year and gazes up at a screen broadcasting the ceremony, the way her eyes light up will make you briefly think you’re not watching a documentary, but rather an awards-season biopic with some actress in a beehive wig trying to earn her Oscar. Then you’ll pity anyone dumb enough to try to top Amy with something scripted—there’s nothing like the real thing.
There’s a moment, with Winehouse in the booth recording vocals for “Back to Black,” that lands like a punch to the gut: As she finishes, she looks back to producer Mark Ronson and smiles, saying “Ooh, it’s a bit upsetting at the end, isn’t it?”
Of course, it is, because we knew going into this that Winehouse would eventually fade to black herself, that her story became upsetting long before the end. Amy is hard to watch at times, and you’ll feel all the things you went into it expecting to feel—guilt, disgust, anger, grief. But, perhaps more importantly, you’ll leave with a renewed appreciation for a once-in-a-generation talent and a sense that the woman you just watched for two hours was complicated and important, bigger than life but undeniably human.
Director: Asif Kapadia
Starring: Amy Winehouse, Mitch Winehouse, Mark Ronson
Release Date: July 3, 2015