The death of Amy Winehouse, in July 2011, at age 27, was the first great tragedy of 21st-century pop music, an event — like the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Kurt Cobain in the last decade of the 20th — that emphasized the jarring contrast between the fragility of human lives and the half-comforting, half-haunting permanence of recorded music. When a musician or singer we love dies, we mourn with our ears. Once an artist is lost to us, the music he or she has left behind somehow changes color and tone, often becoming more beautiful rather than less — maybe because what we’re hearing is a beginning with an ending already written into it.
To hear Winehouse sing numbers like “Back to Black” and “Love Is a Losing Game” in Asif Kapadia’s sensitive and extraordinary documentary Amy, which made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival out of competition, is to open yourself to an unsettling rush of grief and joy. Kapadia has conducted interviews with key people in Winehouse’s life — including her ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, and her longtime best girlfriends, Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert — weaving them through performance and interview footage as well as personal videos and stills shot by friends, family, and colleagues. The result is a surprisingly seamless biographical documentary, one that, even though it’s been constructed largely from found elements, feels gracefully whole.
Amy opens with home-video footage shot during a birthday celebration for Gilbert: The group begins to sing "Happy Birthday," and the camera swings toward Winehouse, at the time a young teenager. When she opens her mouth, what comes out is the sound of the future as informed by the past: This was a young North London girl infatuated with singers like Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Tony Bennett, as well as by instrumentalists like Thelonious Monk. Even as the young Winehouse sings one of the world’s most familiar and basic songs, she turns it into a wacky little gift with a fat, tremulous bow on top; she’s a kitchen-sink diva just waiting for the world to discover her.
Kapadia presents Winehouse looking her best: We see her performing on Late Night With David Letterman, a glorious vision with Maria Callas eyes and Ronnie Spector hair, wearing a polka-dotted supper-club dress that makes her somewhat thoughtlessly placed tattoos look more glamorous, not less. But what really counts is the care Kapadia takes in showing Winehouse in her lowest moments: There are some disturbing stills, taken in Winehouse’s Camden flat in 2008, where she’s so gaunt from drug and alcohol abuse — and the eating disorders that plagued her — that her face appears to consist of just eyes and lips, the body around them whittled down to nothing. There’s also footage of a disastrous concert in Belgrade, the month before Winehouse died; she took the stage, drunk, and then refused to sing.
Those are terrible things to witness in a life, or in a movie. But Kapadia neither downplays nor sensationalizes them; it’s as if he shows us these images only for as long as he can bear to look at them himself. He’s also quite clear about the people who might have helped Winehouse and failed to do so: Her mother, Janis, reveals in an interview that, as a teenager, Winehouse talked about binging and purging as a dieting technique. Janis thought little of it at the time, although she now recognizes the obvious. Fielder-Civil, who admits that he introduced Winehouse to crack and heroin, is captured in some damning old footage ordering drinks at a bar and loudly asking who’s paying the bill. When someone says, “Amy,” he calls for Dom Pérignon. It’s a sort-of joke that could be innocent enough, and the unhealthy codependency between Fielder-Civil and Winehouse wasn’t solely of his making. Still, there’s a repulsive slickness about him; you can’t help thinking that this is a guy who knows a meal ticket when he sees it.
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The same goes for Winehouse’s father, Mitch, who split with Winehouse’s mother when the singer was nine years old, only to reappear in her life in a big way once she began making money. Very early in Winehouse’s career, when her first, devoted manager, Nick Shymansky, realized the singer was headed for trouble and tried to get her into rehab, she left the decision to her father, who asserted that she didn’t need it. (We hear him saying as much, clearly, in the movie’s audio.) Later, after Winehouse become famous and the whole world wanted a piece of her, and exhaustion coupled with alcohol and drug use had begun to wear her down from the inside, he pushed her into doing shows and concerts that obviously should have been canceled.
But if Mitch Winehouse failed his daughter, it should also be noted that he was the man with the records, her first drug: It was through those records that she found the singers and musicians who helped shape her. No wonder her relationship with him was so complicated. Kapadia — whose last film was the 2010 documentary Senna, about Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna — knows he can’t rewrite Winehouse’s history, as much as he may wish he could. And even if the last third of Amy is painful to watch, Kapadia takes care not to lose sight of the human being behind the mythology. In the beginning, she was just a Jewish girl from North London, with a bawdy sense of humor and a voice that carried hints, like subtle notes of perfume, of the singers who’d come before her. In the end, she was both ravaged and radiant, but Amy focuses mostly on the latter. In one of the movie’s most arresting moments, captured by Shymansky as he and Winehouse were tooling through London early in her career, the singer looks well and happy and gorgeous. The camera pulls back as if to say, “Look at her!” This is what music looks like when it takes the form of a person. Forget Mr. Magic. You should see the missus.
Advance tickets to showings of Amy at the Esquire Theatre are available now.