Amy—the critically acclaimed documentary chronicling the life and career of the late Amy Winehouse—is at times haunting, playful, illuminating, ecstatic and insightful. Over the course of nearly two hours, English director Asif Kapadia makes the case not only for Winehouse’s impeccable artistry and ensuing legacy, but breaks down in excruciating detail how the singer-songwriter (who passed away in 2011 at 27) was abandoned by those who should have had her best interest at heart. It’s a cautionary tale straight out of the music industry playbook. It is also a love letter.
Much as he did with his award-winning documentary Senna, Kapadia tells the multi-platinum Grammy winner’s story via archival footage and off-camera interviews. The director spoke to numerous people, including two of Winehouse’s childhood girlfriends, her first manager, and assorted label and professional associates. Among these, producers Mark Ronson (Back to Black) and Salaam Remi (Frank, Back to Black) and musicians Yasiin Bey (f.k.a. Mos Def) and Tony Bennett speak their piece. (Full disclosure: I was interviewed for the film but didn’t make the final cut.)
Although everyone is identified, sometimes not being able to put the voice with the face gets confusing. Even so, the disconnect actually serves to make one pay closer attention to what’s being said.
The footage is revelatory. There’s Winehouse at 14 goofing around with her friends, singing “Happy Birthday”; a twentysomething taking road trips; gigging, writing songs, and auditioning for an eventual record label; and gearing up for the release of her 2003 debut, Frank. Amy is curvy, sassy, and (although a prodigious and self-admitted pothead) clear-eyed—a nice working-class Jewish girl from North London with a jazzy voice that belied her age.
At that point in her career, Amy Winehouse was all promise; the darkness had yet to take hold. Yet Kapadia doesn’t shy away, laying out her issues (depression, undiagnosed bulimia and substance abuse) with brutal honesty. It is that period between her two albums (Back to Black was released in the US in 2007) that Amy changes management, begins drinking more heavily, and gets involved with on and off again boyfriend/ex-husband Blake Civil-Fielder.
It is easy to paint Civil-Fielder—who served as the muse for Back to Black—as the bad guy. He may well have loved Amy, but in the film he comes off as a freeloading enabler who admits introducing her to heroin and crack. Another problematic relationship: that of Amy and her once estranged father, Mitch. The depiction of Mitch is disturbing and a source of controversy.
Kapadia began making Amy with the full cooperation and participation of the family. But after seeing early edits, he publically slammed the film. In recent weeks, he’s softened his attack, albeit without making amends with director Asif Kapadia. Judging by what’s on screen, it’s difficult to muster up much sympathy.
Mitch Winehouse talks about the affair that helped break up his marriage to Amy’s mother, but dismisses any possible long-term impact the infidelity and subsequent divorce might have had on his then young and impressionable daughter (who, despite her father not being present for good chunks of her childhood, reveres him). Mitch’s hold over Amy is so strong that when her first manager begs her to enter rehab, Amy famously replies “no, no, no” because her father has decided she doesn’t need to.
Mitch has insisted that the conversation and quote—which we hear—was edited, and what he actually said was that she didn’t need to now (italics mine). Anyone who has lived with an addict knows you can’t make someone get help, and it’s likely that that first stay at rehab wouldn’t have staved off Amy’s decline. Yet no matter what Mitch might have said (my own gut tells me the quote was not edited), he appears oblivious to the seriousness of his daughter’s condition.
That much is driven home when we watch Mitch, reality TV crew in tow, travel to St. Lucia, where Amy has gone to clean up and escape the chaos. Mitch’s actions are stunningly self-absorbed and exploitive, and although Kapadia doesn’t point fingers, it’s difficult not to see Mitch in a negative light. Another bad guy(s) is the paparazzi hounding her; Kapadia amplifies the camera flashes so that they mimic gunfire. Rounding things out is a management team that insists on putting her on the road when Amy is clearly in no shape to tour.
Truth be told, outside of her girlfriends (whose pain is wrenching), the live-in security guard who discovered her body, her first manager and, one assumes, her mother (who’s barely heard from), the viewer is hard pressed to find anyone who really gave a damn or really knew Amy. That lack of empathy from others makes the recording session with Tony Bennett one of Amy’s most powerful moments.
I had tears in my eyes throughout the film. But when Bennett (Mitch’s favorite vocalist, ironically enough) puts his arm around a noticeably nervous and awestruck Amy, talks to her as a peer, and helps her nail their duet of “Body and Soul,” I pretty much lost it. At the time of the session, Amy was still struggling with addiction. But the drugs and drink haven’t affected her voice, and we’re privy to what Bennett sees and hears: a brilliant singer-songwriter who had no business being a star, but might well be one of the purest artists in recent memory.
It is to Kapadia’s credit that even with all of the scandal and destruction, he never loses sight of that Amy Winehouse. The saga is tragic, the ending painful, but Amy is a triumph because we get to meet the girl that we never got to know and gain a deeper appreciation of the singer we only knew for too short a time.
Amy Linden is a pop culture writer and educator whose work has appeared in Vibe, The New York Times, XXL and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @notfornothin59.