Amy Winehouse Documentary Illuminates, Devastates

From outside Belcourt Theatre; photo by NDWhen the gifted British singer Amy Winehouse was still among us, we watched her rollercoaster-crazy life of international pop-star glory, the alcohol- and drug-fueled excess, and her relentless hounding by paparazzi with wonder at her talent, sadness over her personal issues, and a certain resignation that she would come to an inevitable, tragic end. “Amy,” filmmaker Asif Kapadia’s searing documentary now screening at Nashville’s Belcourt Theatre, resurrects all that emotion and dredges up more, while providing deeper insight into who Winehouse was and why she matters, and into the demons that led to her untimely death in 2011 at age 27.

Young Amy Winehouse, pre-fame; Photo courtesy A24 Films
Young Amy Winehouse, pre-fame; Photo courtesy A24 Films

Using reams of intimate archival footage and audio interviews with major players in the story — including Winehouse herself — Kapadia lets the artist, her family and friends, her ex-husband, and her colleagues tell a story that often leaves one almost as breathless and bereft as did Winehouse’s smoky alto singing songs of love gone wrong. The picture painted is of a vibrant and soulful yet fragile and sensitive young girl with a big, big talent. In clips, we see her as a 14-year-old at a friend’s party showing off her jazz chops with a jaw-dropping rendition of “Happy Birthday”; as one of three musketeers with her two best pals; as a rising artist hoping to walk in the footsteps of Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday as she nails a record-company audition with only her guitar as accompaniment. As the film progresses, we see the evolution of the young woman: her face narrows, her body shrinks, her hair gets higher, mascara and tattoos cover more and more of her body. And, of course, we see her guzzling alcohol more often.

The filmmaker is not afraid to point fingers: at her fame-loving father, Mitchell (the “Rehab” story is true); at her permissive mother, Janis, who couldn’t tell her daughter “no” and didn’t take Amy’s bulimia seriously; at ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, who romanced and rejected an obsessed Winehouse and resurfaced only when she hit the big time and the big bucks; at Amy herself, who blindly or not followed Fielder into hard drug use; at fans and industry types and Jay Leno and media that didn’t give a damn (footage allows us to experience paparazzi from the vantage point of the prey; it is terrifying). “Amy” also points out heroes, including her tough-loving childhood friends and a former manager, who steadfastly remained more interested in the woman and her well-being than in the star and meal ticket.

Kapadia shows us the mischievous, exuberant teen;  the devoted jazz scholar; the determined artist battling to put her pain on a page; the smirking chanteuse whose voice still stuns; the clinging, insecure wife; the violent and destructive addict who’d had enough. We hear her own voice speaking of the depression and bulimia that accompanies her on an increasingly isolated journey, of her disappointment when her visiting father brings along a reality-show camera crew, of being all too aware of the dangerous road she is traveling

There is this: In 2008, she claws her way to sobriety under record label orders so that she may (from England via satellite for the live US broadcast) accept her Record of the Year Grammy Award for Back to Black, the Mark Ronson-produced jazz-pop-retro-soul masterpiece that propelled her mega-fame and in retrospect likely was more curse than blessing for her. She stands on a London stage waiting to see whether she has won and hears her name announced as the winner by her idol, Tony Bennett. Her eyes widen at the sight of Bennett; it is wonderful to behold.  Later, she hugs her best friend amidst the frenzied jubilance and sadly notes that this milestone is “boring without drugs.” Heartwrenching.

And another piece of early footage leaves the viewer gutted:

“I don’t think I’m going to be at all famous,” said a young Amy Winehouse, asked about her musical future. “I don’t think I could handle it. I’d probably go mad.”

Of course, she couldn’t, she did go mad. And it killed her at that cliched age for dead rock stars. One of the final scenes in the documentary shows paramedics removing a body bag from her London flat. It is devastating to watch. The inevitability of Amy Winehouse’s stupid death doesn’t make the loss and the if-onlys any less painful. Knowing how the film ends doesn’t make “Amy” any less required viewing for music fans to remember the talent behind the tabloid headlines.



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