Meticulously crafted, emotionally resonant, and aggressively idiosyncratic, Amy is an enveloping journey of recovery and relapse; a grief-stricken experience laced with much-needed corrective; and a bittersweet catalogue of a nosedive that resulted in unparalleled creative breakthrough. Sensitive and soul-shattering, yet devoid of sensationalism, it’s a stirring testimony to a singular, once-in-a-generation talent.
Amy tells the story of singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, who was found dead from alcohol poisoning in July 2011, at the age of 27 in Camden, North London. Gleaned from a variety of disparate sources, including home movies, more than 100 interviews from friends and family, and other unseen archival footage, Amy is a poignant behind-the-scenes look at the person behind Frank and Back to Black, the number one album of the 21st century, covering everything from Amy’s troubled relationships, bulimia, and drug dependency, to the controversial media attention, to her last shambolic performance in Belgrade, Serbia, weeks before her untimely demise.
Writer-director Asif Kapadia (Far North, Senna) is admirably comprehensive in his materials, yet is focused on specific moments that ring sweetly on first appearance and return later with haunting overtones. In an inspired choice, the lyrics that intertwined with Amy’s tumultuous existence float across the screen as she sings. Rare live sessions, covers, and never-released songs are also part of the delectable artistic banquet lovingly prepared. And greatest hits such as “Stronger Than Me,” “Rehab,” and “Love Is a Losing Game” have even greater impact when situated in context and witnessed through Amy’s eyes.
Portrait-of-an-artist biopics/documentaries have been on the rise over the past few years, and audiences have been treated to closer looks at icons from Brian Wilson (Love & Mercy) to Kurt Cobain (Cobain: Montage of Heck). Somehow, this “intrusion” on the singer’s privacy does not leave us feeling exploitative, only capable of greater understanding. It may have to do with the recent post-mortem nature of the project; it’s more likely because of Kapadia’s celebratory, intimate approach, not unlike Mia Hansen-Løve’s tack on electronic music in Eden. Regardless, it will be difficult to hear Amy’s lush, carnal songs without a twinge of melancholy.
The most revealing aspects of Amy arrive when recognizable legends such as Tony Bennett or hip hop rapper Yasiin Bey pay tribute to Amy and speak of the limitless potential that came to an end before it really had a chance to flourish and mature. Bennett, with whom Amy completed her last recording, the duet single “Body and Soul” in March 2011, felt an automatic kinship with Amy’s self-destructive perfectionism, lamenting that “life teaches you how to live it, if you can live long enough.” Awash in tear wringing, Amy is a perfect, if perfectly depressing, double bill with Montage of Heck. Just remember to be thankful of what they left behind.
Truth be told, it’s challenging to grapple with Amy’s level of success at any age, let alone at 22 or 25. Back to Black alone produced five Grammy Awards, including three of the “Big Four,” and more than a dozen others. Altogether, she received more than 60 nominations from just two albums. She was constantly paraded on talk shows from Letterman to MTV, received offers of $1 million per show no matter how sick, and was the victim of two rather reprehensible men, father and husband. In that light, her sad, great songs and miserable end feel inevitable.
Amy’s death was a deeply troubling reminder of the 27 Club (occupied by Cobain, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin, among others) and all the injuries associated with a life of celebrity. Where fame and addiction converge, tragedy is bound to strike. The kind that is exposed in the form of a young girl’s body swamped with alcohol levels four times the legal drinking limit feels catastrophic, something the world would be motivated to avoid at all costs. Yet Amy is a cautionary tale, making us uncomfortable and wary of denigrating, mocking, and exacerbating an artist’s descent.
Amy, the girl, was an astonishingly special soul, a “65-year-old jazz singer in an 18-year-old’s body.” Amy, the film, is not quite that special. Still, in presenting Amy as who she was, not as who everyone wanted her to be, Amy is an illuminating, compassionate, and necessary reclamation of a vigorous life – a light which burned brightly, and was smothered far too soon.