By John Curley
Director Asif Kapadia’s documentary Amy quite effectively tells the story of the life and career of Amy Winehouse, the British singer whose shooting-star-like ascent to the top and drug-and-alcohol-addled fall from grace ended in her death at the age of 27 on July 23, 2011. Rather than going with talking-head interviews to guide the narrative, Kapadia very effectively used the interviews, both archive and new material, as voice overs. Kapadia also made great use of Winehouse’s lyrics as onscreen titles to drive home just how autobiographical so many of her lyrics were. The film’s visuals were a combination of camcorder and mobile-phone footage, video and film of Winehouse performances, and clips of her television appearances. One of the television appearances of Winehouse in the film features her absolutely priceless look of disdain when the interviewer brings up the British singer Dido.
The earlier parts of the film are the lightest. A seemingly carefree Winehouse is shown singing “Happy Birthday” at a party at age 14. Footage of Winehouse’s early live performances and riding in cars while on tour promoting her debut album, Frank, is narrated by her first manager Nick Shymansky. Winehouse’s drinking was a concern of Shymansky’s during that period, and he recounts with obvious sadness that his attempt to get Winehouse into rehab at that time was torpedoed by Winehouse’s father, Mitch. Shymansky believed that if Winehouse had gotten treatment at that point, before her career took off, things might have been drastically different. Winehouse used the failed attempt to get her clean as the subject for her biggest hit, “Rehab.”
The film starts to take a darker turn with the appearance of Blake Fielder-Civil, a London-based club promoter who would become Winehouse’s lover and later, her husband. Fielder-Civil introduced Winehouse to heroin. He is interviewed in the film, and his comments provide quite a bit of insight into the madness of their world at the time.
Winehouse’s substance-abuse issues, take-no-prisoners personality, and the phenomenal success of her second album Back To Black made her a target for the British press and the paparazzi. Scenes of large crowds of paparazzi stalking Winehouse like a swarm of angry bees are genuinely disturbing. Equally upsetting are the jibes that comedians and talk-show hosts are shown making about Winehouse, a person with clear substance-abuse and emotional problems as well as bulimia. The worst of these came in a monologue by the smarmy Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. What makes Leno’s caustic comments even more upsetting was that Winehouse is shown earlier in the film doing a fantastic job while performing on his show.
The film is full of poignant moments. Two of these are provided by a friend of Winehouse who recounts that a then-clean Winehouse pulled her aside on Winehouse’s incredible night of victory on the 2008 Grammy Awards and told her that it was no fun without drugs. The same friend also tearfully recounted the last phone call that she received from Winehouse during which Winehouse repeatedly apologized for the difficulty that she had caused.
One of the most amazing sequences in the film involves the recording session that Winehouse did with Tony Bennett for the song “Body and Soul” at London’s Abbey Road Studios. Winehouse, very nervous and clearly in awe of Bennett, has difficulty with a vocal take. Bennett, taking on a fatherly role, tries to calm Winehouse down and get her to relax. (The song, Winehouse’s last recording, was released after her death.)
The film makes a case that several people in her circle had a great deal to do with her downfall. Fielder-Civil is the most obvious one. Her second manager Raye Cosbert also comes in for a good bit of criticism. Winehouse’s father is not portrayed in a particularly positive light in the film. He is seen as an absentee father who walked out on Winehouse’s mother when Amy Winehouse was nine years old. That is seen as the initial catalyst that led ultimately to Winehouse’s downfall. While Mitch Winehouse has denounced his portrayal in the film, the footage of him bringing a TV crew to the Caribbean island nation of St. Lucia, where his daughter had gone for an extended rest and to avoid the public eye and the paparazzi, leaves a lot to be desired. It’s clear that Winehouse wanted nothing to do with the camera crew.
The most disturbing footage in the film is a disastrous performance in Belgrade on June 18, 2011. A clearly inebriated Winehouse is shown stumbling around the stage, hugging several of her band members, and sitting on the stage. But not singing. The boos were loud and Winehouse’s band members can be heard discussing her condition. Since the rest of that tour was cancelled, the Belgrade show was her final performance. Cosbert deflects criticism of Winehouse performing in such a state by claiming that she wanted to perform and denied that Winehouse was forced to do the show by stating that she could never be talked into doing anything that she didn’t want to do.
While it’s not easy to digest many things in the film, Winehouse’s terrific music makes the experience worthwhile. And those songs make the viewer realize just what was lost with Winehouse’s premature death and what a terrible shame it was that her amazing voice was silenced after only two albums. While Winehouse unquestionably suffered for her art, her songs will live on for years to come.
Amy is 128 minutes in length. It is rated R for language and drug content. The film opens in New York City and Los Angeles on Friday, July 3rd and is released nationwide in the United States on Friday, July 10th.