One of the most unique choices made by Asif Kapadia's Amy Winehouse documentary Amy is its refusal to incorporate any new talking head interviews. Yes, we hear new interviews with Winehouse's friends, family members and collaborators, but we only see their faces in archival footage from different chapters of Winehouse's life. This is often an uncomfortably horrifying film, because it never allows us to retreat to the relative safety of the present. We're trapped in the vortex of this young woman's life, watching her spiral further out of control and knowing that she will not escape.
As the film begins, most of the footage we see comes from intimate home videos. In one of the earliest scenes, we see a 14-year-old Amy hanging out at a friend's birthday party. Eventually, she spontaneously breaks into “Happy Birthday,” giving the banal, familiar tune a remarkably soulful flourish. It's clear from the beginning that she's a phenomenal talent, and more people discover that talent with each passing year. As time marches on, the footage grows increasingly less intimate: home videos, then dingy concert videos, then local TV interviews, then glossy concert videos, then national TV interviews, then awards show footage, then invasive paparazzi snapshots. Meanwhile, the irreverent charmer we spent time with in the film's early scenes becomes increasingly hard to find; replaced by a confused, troubled woman lost in the fog of drugs, depression, alcohol and bulimia.
In the midst of Winehouse's darkest days, we're hit with uncomfortable reminders of what a pop culture punching bag she was during her final years. George Lopez even cracks one in the middle of announcing that Winehouse has won an award: “Somebody go wake her drunk ass up and tell her.” Meanwhile, a litany of voices on the soundtrack bemoan the way she was treated and how little empathy was shown. This is what we do: we mock and jeer people who are troubled, we watch them die, then we shake our heads sadly and say, “It's a shame they never got the help they needed.” (See also: Jackson, Michael.)
I tend to be wary of armchair psychology in movies, but the root of Amy Winehouse's personal downfall is fairly clear: she wasn't equipped to handle the pressures of fame. She's certainly not the first celebrity to struggle with this, but she seems less capable than most of finding ways to stabilize herself. Before she becomes famous, she admits to suffering from depression, but says that music gives her a way to deal with her feelings. She states that she has no real interest in stardom, and that her version of success mostly entails having the freedom to go record music whenever she feels like it. The bigger she gets, the more she turns to various dangerous substances for relief.
A lovely interlude arrives in the film's mostly-dark second half, as Winehouse visits a recording studio to perform a duet with Tony Bennett (one of her idols). They make beautiful music together, and Bennett demonstrates a relaxed, non-judgmental paternal warmth that stands in sharp contrast to the cruel jeering, invasive curiosity and adulatory hysteria that marks a lot of Winehouse's other encounters. There's such genuine sadness in Bennett's voice when we hear him address his relationship with Winehouse. “You know, life has a way of teaching you how to live it... if you live long enough,” he sighs.
I imagine that some sort of Amy Winehouse biopic will be made at some point. Maybe it'll be terrific, but it's hard to imagine any traditional feature matching the raw power of this doc: with its informative chronological structure, sensational music and compelling central figure, Amy manages to offer the strengths of a great traditional music biopic without any of the speculative nonsense, needless mythologizing or awards-baiting melodrama that usually hampers such things. It's a gripping piece of documentary filmmaking, and a worthwhile reminder that having phenomenal talent is not the same thing as having what it takes to be a celebrity. Here is a shooting star of a life, burning bright before fading into the night.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Year: 2015