Film review by: Gordon K. Smith
A powerful documentary for the 24/7 video age, Asif Kapadia’s AMY follows the short, sweet, and sad life of British soul singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse from the age of 14 until her tragic, yet unsurprising, death in 2011, officially from alcohol poisoning. The fact that most of this period is well covered by video from mobile phones, consumer camcorders, news footage, TV broadcasts and paparazzi demonstrates the new age of biographical documentaries – producers no longer have to piece it together from rare photos and talking heads – just about everyone now has their life story in constant video coverage, and that makes AMY the first of a new breed. The inevitable narrative biopic, which would no doubt star some analogous American singer on the rise, seems superfluous in the wake of this film’s riveting, and ultimately quite moving, 128 minutes.
Born to a musical British-Jewish family in London, Winehouse worshipped ’60s girl groups and jazz singers such as Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughn and Billie Holiday, and her talent is startlingly apparent in the first clip as she sings “Happy Birthday” at 14 at a friend’s party. Kapadia shows us how her incredible, heartbreaking voice as well her remarkable songwriting talent developed, leading to her breakthrough 2003 album Frank, which put her on the map of rising UK pop talent. Back to Black, released in the UK in 2006, becomes an international hit the following year, hitting number one on both sides of the pond. By this time she’s a pop culture icon, with the signature beehive and makeup inspired by Ronnie Spector and the Latina artists she saw in Miami. The album, and its breakout single “Rehab”, wins Winehouse five Grammys at the 2008 ceremony, tying the record for the most won by a female performer in a single night.
This night provides for the emotional climax of AMY, in which we see the now-frail star, whose drug, bulimia and domestic violence issues are well-known by this point, and so are memories of her disastrous 2007 tour, in which those problems were all too evident. Winehouse watches in a live London telecast as her idol, Tony Bennett, presents the Best Song Grammy to her in absentia half a world away; the sense of exaltation and frustration is all there on her face. Zapadia’s film doesn’t tell us why she wasn’t there; according to Wikipedia it was due to her failing a drug test and a visa approval arriving too late. It also doesn’t tell us (perhaps for legal reasons) how she was introduced to drugs, only that her crack cocaine addiction has started – Wiki blames it not on the music scene she was quickly thrust into, but on her husband Blake Fielder-Civil, to whom she was tumultuously married from 2007-2009. He still gets the brunt of the blame in the film for wrecking her life; it’s also clearly implied that her father Mitch Winehouse also enabled her downfall by not doing enough to get her off the brutalizing concert tours. Mitch has publicly and loudly criticized the film, but still recommends it for its rarer footage of Amy performing her lesser-known/remembered tracks, like the haunting “Love Is A Losing Game”.
Perhaps this kind of career trajectory is a losing game too, according to AMY; it’s truly heartbreaking to see her well-documented decline and how she apparently kicked illicit drugs only to replace them with the legal acceptable kind – booze, which surely combined with her eating and possibly mental disorders to cut short a career of immense promise. Kapadia clearly sympathizes with her, and not with the press who relentlessly hounded her or the commentators and comedians – Jay Leno is not spared – who kicked her when she was down. I’ve never been too impressed by that kind of comedy, and I’m even less so now.
Toward the end, AMY shows us in telling and surprisingly touching detail her final recording session. It could not be more ironic that it was with her idol Tony Bennett, for his Duets II album; it would be released two months after her death on July 23, 2011. Amy was 27, a final age she shared with Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison and Cobain. We wonder “why does this keep happening?”; AMY the film tries to provide some answers.