The immensely talented British songstress Amy Winehouse exploded onto the scene as one of the greatest singers of her era with her 2006 album Back to Black, which featured the sharp, intensely personal hit single "Rehab." Only five years later, after frequent health problems and tabloid appearances, the woman whom Tony Bennett had praised as "one of the truest jazz singers I have ever heard" was dead of alcohol poisoning at age 27. Director Asif Kapadia (who also helmed the highly compelling documentary Senna) pieces together an in-depth account of her life and struggles in Amy, using old and new interviews with friends, family, collaborators, and Winehouse herself.
Winehouse's talent is clearly apparent in early performances at intimate clubs for small audiences and inside recording studios, and her private pain is captured in never-before-released pictures taken by friends. Various pundits and talking heads say that she was a star who simply shined too brightly before flaming out, and her personal and professional arcs tend to reflect that. Kapadia, however, makes it his mission to document Winehouse not as a cliché or a cautionary tale, but as a passionate, damaged, wickedly funny human being who happened to possess one of the most beautiful and original voices we've ever heard.
Lyrics Winehouse wrote for Back to Black and her 2003 debut album Frank float across the screen (and are backed by the accompanying audio of her sultry voice) as the documentary goes through the events that inspired those words. These formative moments, which influenced both her music and her eventual fate, frequently center on the two most important and toxic men in her life: her father Mitch and her lover/husband Blake Fielder-Civil. Mitch, directly addressed in the chorus of Amy's most famous song ("I ain't got the time/and if my daddy thinks I'm fine"), was a former taxi driver who cheated on Amy's mother throughout her childhood, and comes off as a coattail rider who became more concerned with his daughter's fame and career than her general well-being. Blake, the love of her life, eventually led her into a descent marked by heavy drug use, including crack cocaine and heroin. Coupled with her struggles with bulimia, excessive drinking, and resentment toward the overwhelming media attention her exemplary music brought her, Amy's downward spiral rapidly intensified as it built toward an all-too-familiar conclusion. The film is unnerving and brutally honest in showing viewers the demons that poisoned her career and eventually took her life.
It is fair to wonder, though, if the discomfort and sadness the documentary evokes means it was made too soon after Winehouse's death in 2011. The wounds are still fresh for Amy's friends and collaborators, who spent years trying to pull her away from her most destructive habits. A few scenes, including a controversial photo shoot with Terry Richardson and a look at Winehouse in the throes of addiction, may be difficult to stomach. Yet, ultimately, Kapadia's heart seems to be in the right place. Clips of personalities such as Jay Leno and Graham Norton commenting on Winehouse's proclivities and public appearances are painted as cruel rather than humorous, serving as an indictment on the relentless attention she received. Indeed, Amy tells journalist Garry Mulholland early on in her career, "I don't think I could handle [fame]. I'd go mad." It's an ominous point that is driven home several times throughout the course of the film.
Fortunately, there is enough of Amy at her best to paint a picture of the legend during her finest moments. Home videos taken by some of her closest friends show the always charismatic entertainer before the fame and beehive hairdo, effortlessly holding a room rapt with her presence or breaking into a Latin-tinged accent as she gives a pal a tour of her vacation home. Contributions from childhood chums prove invaluable to creating a full rendering of the personality behind the hits. And a bit of truly touching footage from shortly before her death shows Winehouse at a recording session with Bennett, one of her heroes and inspirations. Even during her lighter moments and early days as a singer-songwriter, it was clear that Winehouse was, as her good friend and former manager Nick Shymansky put it, "a complete force of nature."
The music world will bemoan losing Winehouse for many years to come, as her name is now scrawled next to Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Kurt Cobain in the pantheon of geniuses who cause us to ponder the masterpieces we lost due to their early deaths. Kapadia's work makes it clear how much she will be missed, a singular, prodigal talent whose gifts on-stage wouldn't have been possible without the cocktail of blunt honesty, humor, sensuality, and vulnerability in her soul. This film is an inspiring and powerful testament to her humanity and art, both of which are embodied in a voice silenced far too soon, but one that will be remembered for years to come.