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When Amy Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning in 2011, worldwide reaction was more weary resignation than surprise. British director Asif Kapadia’s respectful documentary portrait reminds us that the self-destructive London singer was supremely talented, explosively charismatic, but dangerously ill-equipped for the superstar fame that came with her 20-million-selling breakthrough album Back to Black.
While her death at 27 was a tragic loss, it also carried a terrible sense of inevitability. In her native Britain, much like Lady Diana Spencer before her, Winehouse was elevated overnight from remorselessly pursued paparazzi target to saintly sacrificial victim.
Premiering in Cannes, Amy reunites the team behind the award-winning Formula 1 documentary Senna. The film was commissioned by Winehouse’s record label Universal and initially endorsed by her parents, who provided interviews to Kapadia. However, the family has now publicly dissociated itself from the project, claiming it is “both misleading and contains some basic untruths.” That said, the overall tone of Amy is tender and celebratory. Commemorating an iconic figure who made one of the biggest-selling albums of the last 20 years, the film should enjoy healthy box office prospects when it begins its European theatrical roll-out next month, with a U.K. launch scheduled for July 3. A24 have signed up U.S. rights.
There are no big bombshell revelations here, but even casual fans will enjoy the gossipy backstage buzz and sheer force of talent on display. The performance clips are a welcome reminder of what a fabulously exotic creature Winehouse was, firmly rooted in North London Jewish culture but steeped from birth in vintage African-American jazz, soul and hip-hop. With her magnificent beehive perched atop her tiny head like a huge dead octopus, she synthesized elements of Ronnie Spector, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Edith Piaf into a glorious drag-queen mash-up that always felt richer and deeper than mere imitation.
Kapadia sticks closely to his Senna method, stitching together a collage of archive footage and overlaying it with contemporary audio interviews. But the film Amy most closely resembles is Brett Morgen’s recent Kurt Cobain bio-doc Montage of Heck. Both are emotionally raw portraits of freakishly gifted, self-destructive young musicians told through extensive home movies and personal writings. Indeed, Amy is full of striking parallels: Cobain and Winehouse both carried deep childhood scars from parental divorce, both embraced hard drugs with reckless gusto, both had turbulent marriages to fellow addicts and both checked out at the mythical dead-rock-star age of 27.
Winehouse’s music career began in the early Noughties, a few years before every cellphone became a movie camera. Fortunately for Kapadia, Winehouse grew up surrounded by friends with camcorders. Home video footage forms the film’s chief source material, much of it revealing and disarmingly funny. In one hilarious sequence, the singer flounces around a holiday villa in the character of a Spanish chambermaid, flirtatious and camp, a natural comedian in her element. Sweet clips of her showing off at teenage parties, or goofing around in the street before she was famous, only prove that the camera loved her long before the public did.
The main dramatic engine of Amy is Winehouse’s stormy romance with her bad-boy jailbird lover Blake Fielder, who inspired many of the songs on Back to Black. Kapadia uses the music to illustrate their real-life soap opera as much as possible, with handwritten lyrics unspooling across the screen in real time, every tune a heart-shaped bruise. Footage of the pair in Miami on their wedding day, in May 2007, looks impossibly blissful. But the relationship was abusive and volatile, ending in divorce in 2009. Winehouse called Fielder “the male version of me” but later claimed “the whole marriage was based on drugs.” There was far too much chemistry between them.
Fielder is among around 100 key players interviewed in Amy, alongside the singer’s mother and father, studio collaborators Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, manager Raye Cosbert, and musician friends like Questlove of The Roots and rapper Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def). “She could drink anybody under the table,” Bey recalls. The singer’s final recorded work, a duet with her idol Tony Bennett, is a sweet vignette of star-struck fandom. “She was the truest jazz singer I ever heard,” Bennett says ruefully. But Kapadia’s real coup was in securing cooperation from Winehouse’s first manager Nick Shymansky, plus her childhood friends Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert. Their shared archive of pre-fame memories and video material is priceless.
Amy does not attempt a psychological explanation of Winehouse’s fissile character, though her bulimia, depression, substance addiction and fondness for dangerous men were clearly part of the toxic cocktail. Her father Mitch Winehouse also appears far too eager to exploit her fame, bringing unwelcome TV cameras to film her in the middle of a fragile post-rehab stay in the Caribbean. This sequence may explain his objections to the film. Kapadia also glosses over some of the singer’s own less excusable behavior, including multiple arrests for assault.
But as a whole, Amy is an emotionally stirring and technically polished tribute, its sprawling mass of diverse source material elegantly cleaned up, color-corrected and shaped into a satisfying narrative. If Kapadia’s film feels like an incomplete story, that is mainly because Winehouse’s life was itself incomplete. Like Kurt Cobain, she died way too young to leave a full legacy, only an unfinished symphony of great music and a mountain of untapped potential.
Production companies: Krishwerkz Entertainment, Playmaker Films, Universal Music
Cast: Amy Winehouse, Mitch Winehouse, Blake Fielder, Mark Ronson, Tony Bennett, Juliette Ashby, Lauren Gilbert, Nick Shymansky
Director: Asif Kapadia
Producer: James Gay-Rees
Editor: Chris King
Archive Producer: Paul Bell
Music: Antonio Pinto
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