You always hurt the one you love, the saying goes. But, as we observe with a mixture of dread and disgust in this transfixing documentary from Asif Kapadia (Senna), the inverse was true for Amy Winehouse. An appalling number of the people closest to her, who supposedly loved her, did damage to her.
Unlike many bios of famous people, Kapadia's really does tell his subject's life story — from childhood to death. To anyone who knew Winehouse only from her sad, last tabloid years, Amy is certain to prove a revelation.
The movie opens with home video of Winehouse laughing at a party with friends in suburban London. Barely 14, she presents as a funny, bright-eyed kid. The scene couldn't appear more ordinary. Then Winehouse belts out "Happy Birthday to You" and sends shivers down your spine. Two years later she would have a record contract.
The filmmaker tells Winehouse's story chronologically and eschews the use of talking heads. Key figures in her life contribute reflections and insights through voiceovers accompanying archival footage. The technique creates an exceptional sense of intimacy.
We watch Winehouse morph from schoolgirl poet to preternaturally gifted songwriter and listen to interviews that track her development as an artist. At 20, she tells a journalist, "Success to me is having the freedom to work. Leave me alone, and I will do the music."
Well, she did the music — in 2003, Frank, the album that established Winehouse in England, and three years later Back to Black, the masterpiece that made her a global brand. Then people stopped leaving her alone.
Kapadia notes the role the paparazzi played in Winehouse's final years, but that's something of a red herring. Lots of celebrities are hounded by the press and manage not to die of alcohol poisoning before 30. The director reveals that most of Winehouse's problems were actually caused, or at least exacerbated, by people who supposedly cared about her.
Chief among them were the men in her life. It's impossible to overstate the scumbagginess of Winehouse's father, the daddy who told her it's OK to just say no, no, no to rehab. Mitch Winehouse was an absentee parent — until his daughter became rich and famous. In a telling sequence, Amy retreats to an island to get clean and enjoy a moment out of the public eye — only to have her privacy invaded by her father and the camera crew he brought along to shoot a reality show about himself.
Worse was Blake Fielder-Civil, a sleaze who leeched on to the singer once she hit it big and talked her into marrying him after getting her hooked on crack and heroin. By this point in the film, we begin to recognize the Winehouse whose downward spiral we witnessed just four years ago, and we miss the funny, confident, talented young woman we saw earlier.
We get one last glimpse of that woman near the end, in footage of Winehouse recording a duet with her idol, Tony Bennett, months before her death. Nervous, she gets off to a bumpy start, but he's reassuring and kind. The result is gorgeous, and she positively basks in Bennett's admiration.
Later, Bennett says Winehouse deserves to be remembered alongside jazz royalty like Ella Fitzgerald. This mesmerizing, meticulously crafted and moving film offers us a similar reminder that, before the people she trusted allowed her to become a punch line, Winehouse was a serious talent. What came after may not have been pretty, but Back to Black is a thing of timeless beauty. With Amy, Kapadia sets the record straight.