Just two years ago, documentary filmmaker Asif Kapadia began interviewing Amy Winehouse’s family, friends and collaborators in a darkened London studio.
Because Winehouse had died only less than two years earlier, emotions were still rather raw. So Kapadia opted to forgo the camera and used an audio recorder to make them feel more comfortable.
“They were very nervous, and there was a lot of guilt,” Kapadia explains. “It became a bit like therapy. They opened up and talked about things they hadn’t really spoken about to anyone before.”
In unprecedented depth, Amy tells the tale of the troubled Winehouse through unseen archival footage and photographs, and personal videos shot by family, friends, manager Nick Shymansky, and her lifelong best friends, Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert.
These are often accompanied by the more than 100 newly recorded audio interviews, which editor Chris King adroitly weaves into a narrative of Winehouse’s life, her enormous talent and her painful unraveling, which culminated with her death at age 27 due to alcohol toxicity.
London-born filmmaker Kapadia is best known for the thrilling 2011 documentary Senna, his film about Brazilian racing legend Ayrton Senna.
Similarly, he approached Winehouse’s life as a dramatic story, with numerous twists and turns, with a magnificent and tragic figure at its core.
“What I learned was what a creative, intelligent, funny human being she was,” he says. “I didn’t know any of that. I don’t know if anyone did.”
And for all that we thought we knew about Amy Winehouse, we really knew very little.
This is the Amy Winehouse few of us ever got to experience, radiating cheeky self-confidence and finding boundless joy in sharing her considerable talents.
Kapadia shows us the transformation of this young, mischief-loving Jewish girl from North London into a peerless interpreter of jazz and soul, ready to take her deserved place alongside such greats as Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk and Tony Bennett.
Early scenes, like a teenage Winehouse belting “Happy Birthday” at a friend’s 14th birthday party, reveal the singer’s natural talent, while the latter half of the film documents her agonizing drug problems.
Less well-known to the public is her struggle with bulimia, which likely played a significant role in her early death by weakening her heart.
“She’d have meetings in restaurants and be eating and eating, but she didn’t have anything to her body mass,” Kapadia says.
The film repeatedly shows swarms of aggressive paparazzi stalking the frail Winehouse wherever she went, even as she attempted to enter rehab and straighten out her life.
“It’s quite visceral,” says Kapadia. “Through the tabloids, her life became a joke, and she was a sensitive soul. She wasn’t confident enough to deal with these issues.”
We must credit Kapadia, though, for not overplaying the victim card. Winehouse’s fragile moth’s attraction to the flame is easily apparent.
Towards the end of Amy, Kapadia chooses to focus on something positive: a perfect commemoration of Winehouse’s once-in-a-blue-moon talent.
It’s an encounter at Abbey Road Studios between Amy and her idol, Tony Bennett, to record the jazz standard “Body and Soul” for Bennett’s second album of duets.
Winehouse, now 27 and three months from death, is overawed. She paces back and forth, hemming and hawing, nerves obviously frayed to thread.
“Don’t worry, I’m the same,” says Bennett, with a crinkled smile.
Reassured, she breathes deeply, and they sing together, on the last song the songstress would ever record.
And for a few moments Amy Winehouse becomes the perfect version of herself: her voice low and whisky-rich, her eyeshadow thick and feline, her black hair bundled up in a cartoonishly beautiful heap.
“My life a wreck you’re making,” she sings into the microphone. “You know I’m yours for just the taking. I’d gladly surrender myself to you, body and soul.”
As last words go, they’re unbeatable.
However, the final scenes of the movie ― with Winehouse wasted by alcohol, drugs and eating disorders, barely able to sing onstage ― are difficult to watch ― as is the moment when authorities emerge from her London apartment with a body bag.
It is the achievement of Amy, Asif Kapadia’s accomplished, quietly devastating documentary, that it makes the story of this troubled and troubling individual surprisingly one of a kind by allowing us to, in a sense, live her life along with her.
“Part of the intention of the ending is to ask how did we let this happen?” Kapadia says. “How did we let this thing go on, and nobody stepped in and stopped it?”
As riveting as it is sad, Amy is an extraordinary documentary, filled with soul-stirring, heartbreaking moments and providing a powerfully honest look at the twisted relationship between art and celebrity — and the lethal spiral of addiction.
Despite just two albums to her name, Amy Winehouse has emerged as one of the biggest music icons in British musical history.
Amy Winehouse was a pop star with soul, a once-in-a-generation musical talent whose appeal crossed cultural and demographic boundaries.
But while her music made Amy Winehouse a star, her chaotic personal life stole headlines.
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