Amy Review

(3.5 STARS)

I remember where I was when I found out Amy Winehouse died. At a Subway in New Jersey, I can still picture what I was wearing, what kind of day it was, how the conversation went between my friends and I. It was an awful day. No contemporary singer affected me the way she did. Her voice was legendary. Her songs were breathtaking.

Hers was a life filled with sadness and regret, and that life is given depth and treated very delicately in Asif Kapadia’s excellent documentary Amy. The result is something that moved me deeply and will likely do the same for even those only casually familiar with Winehouse and her incredible talent.

Told exclusively through a unique combination of archival footage and background interviews that are never seen, Amy begins with the singer enjoying life as a North London teenager. She sings “Happy Birthday” to a friend; There’s no indication that she’d win a boatload of Grammy’s in less than a decade, but she’s undeniably talented.

We follow her as she gets discovered, releases her first album, navigates the industry and develops a complicated relationship with the press, falls in love, has her heart broken, becomes an international superstar, drinks, does drugs, goes to rehab, tries to bounce back, and ultimately dies at just 27 years old. Along the way, we’re given glimpses into her best moments, worst moments, and the couple moments that could have saved her.

Kapadia’s approach will likely lead most discussions about Amy, but it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to those who saw and enjoyed his terrific racing doc Senna. Still, much of Amy consists of a dead woman’s personal moments, not to mention the very paparazzi footage that the film argues helps contribute to her downfall. Ultimately, there will be people unhappy with the film; Mitch Winehouse told the filmmakers they should be ashamed of themselves after viewing it. I think the approach lends a heartstring-tugging intimacy that couldn’t be achieved any other way. (And Mitch, well, he has his own issues.) The film treads a very familiar thematic path—that of the tortured artist who’s spiraling downward—but its immediacy sets it apart from something like Walk the Line or Crazy Heart. Both of those films are fictional, but even a documentary like Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck from earlier this year, for all the tricks in its bag, doesn’t measure up to the emotional heft of Amy‘s you-are-there-ness.

Kapadia’s other major stylistic contribution is his decision to write out Winehouse’s lyrics on the screen during the film’s musical sequences. His song choice is mostly perfect. Highlights include “Back to Black” playing over Winehouse in the studio with producer Mark Ronson, as well as her performance of “Love Is a Losing Game” while accepting one of many, many awards. Both performances come on the heels of particularly devastating personal moments, and their world-hardened messages enforce the film’s tone and message perfectly. To truly get us into the mind of the writer, into the universe of the song, Kapadia artfully displays the lyrical text on the screen, and it’s a fantastic choice that works much better than you might expect.

The film’s interview subjects, who are never seen giving talking heads, offer a few possible “turning point” moments at which they think Amy’s fate could have been averted. The toughest to swallow is in the lead up to her Back in Black album when some of her close friends decide she’s drinking too much and something needs to be said. They think she needs help; Amy says she’ll go to rehab if her dad agrees it’s necessary; Mitch thinks Amy is fine. A song is born from this conversation, and it’s the one that serves as Amy’s true international breakout. If she went to rehab then, she might have gotten the help necessary to stay clean, and it could have been done away from the media’s devastatingly judgmental gaze. That said, if it did play out according to this alternate timeline—one without the song “Rehab”—would she have ever become the star that she was?

It’s bitter irony like this that makes Winehouse’s story such a tragedy. She didn’t like fame or attention, yet she couldn’t avoid it. She loved hard but was constantly let down by the objects of her affection. And despite being constantly disappointed by those she loved, she channeled those negative feelings into magical music that uplifted millions. There’s no telling what might have happened with Winehouse’s career if she was able to overcome her demons, but Amy isn’t interested in that type of postulating. (It ends just minutes after the film covers her death.) Instead, it’s an earnest love letter—about a woman who probably needed one while she was still with us and for a fan base that’s reeling to this day.

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