Before seeing Amy I assumed I knew very little about the story of Amy Winehouse or her music. After seeing Amy I realized I already knew Winehouse’s story pretty well, and I knew her music better than I thought I did. What I didn’t know was Amy herself. Now I do.
Or I feel like I do. Amy is an incredibly intimate portrait of the doomed singer, and in many ways it represents the future of biographical documentaries. Winehouse came of age and became famous in an era when everybody was carrying a little movie camera in their pockets, and the doc features behind the scenes, unguarded footage of Winehouse throughout the course of her career, footage captured by managers, lovers, family and even Amy herself.
The film’s format - only home video/archival footage with people speaking over it - recalls director Asif Kapadia’s last film, Senna. That movie, about the doomed race car driver, eschewed any talking head interviews, and it made the film remarkably immediate. But the Amy Winehouse story has a secret weapon: her lyrics were not just intensely personal, they were often baldly about her life. Unlike a Kurt Cobain, who obfuscated the meaning of his lyrics, Winehouse poured it all out on the page plainly. Her biggest hit, Rehab, has this lyric:
They tried to make me go to rehab but I said, 'No, no, no.'
Yes, I've been black but when I come back you'll know, know, know
I ain't got the time and if my daddy thinks I'm fine
He's tried to make me go to rehab but I won't go, go, go
We learn in the movie that when friends tried to get Winehouse, who was drinking to truly extraordinary excess, to go to rehab she said she would only go if her dad said she needed to clean up. He said that she seemed fine to him. And so she didn’t go (that time - Winehouse did rehab at other points in her life). The film weaves these lyrics with the audio interviews of those who survived Amy, and her words allow the singer to have a posthumous say in her own story.
The perspective we get from her own words is one of crushing sadness, of a young woman from a working class background whose basic, fairly normal issues were never addressed - she was bulimic at 15 and her mom thought it was a phase - and were only exacerbated when she became famous. Fame wasn’t something she sought, and in fact her musical style was intended to be counter to the current poppy trends. Rehab wasn’t even a song she thought would be a single. But her voice and blunt lyrics spoke to more people than she ever imagined, and suddenly - and it feels sudden in the context of the movie - she was consumed by flashing camera bulbs and constant tabloid surveillance.
The second half of the doc is something of a grind as Winehouse hits rock bottom and seems to be able to claw her way back to the light… only to hit rock bottom again. That’s the truth, obviously, but there’s also repetition to it that wears you down. Kapadia finds an intriguing way to explore these periods, though, as he looks at the men in Winehouse’s life who undercut her at every turn. We all knew that her sleazebag husband Blake Fielder was a horrific influence on her final years, but Amy also reveals that her father was something of a monster, a guy who let his daughter destroy herself, and who brought reality show cameras to her private moments, worsening the mental wounds from which she was escaping.
But Amy isn’t blaming anyone; a self-destructive person destroys themselves. Kapadia isn’t making any excuses for Winehouse, and part of what hurts about her death is that it feels so avoidable. It is tough watching Winehouse make mistake after mistake, to dive right back into drugs days after returning from a rehab stint. The movie doesn’t present Winehouse as a martyr but as a tragic figure burning up from within and surrounded by people who only knew how to throw more kindling on the fire.
The destruction of Amy Winehouse is a variation on a story we’ve all seen play out a dozen times with a dozen pop stars, and that isn’t what makes Amy interesting. What makes Amy interesting is the way it recontextualizes her work. I thought I must have missed some of Winehouse’s work - I knew of Frank, her debut, and knew Back to Black, but I didn’t realize that was the majority of her output. I didn’t realize that the songs I knew that made her famous were also, in many ways, the songs that destroyed her. While I knew the work I had missed the purity within it; encountering Winehouse as an American, within the whirlwind of the British fame she had already acquired, made me see her only through that lens - a drunk, high disaster who paraded around at the MTV Video Music Awards in some really ill-advised outfits.
That recontextualization led to the moment in the film - a sad movie throughout, one that elicited more than a few sobs from my audience - that made me truly cry. It wasn’t a scene of tragedy, it wasn’t a moment of loss that got to me. It was behind the scenes footage of Winehouse in London, watching (and performing via simulcast) the Grammys. Tony Bennett - her idol, her inspiration - opens the envelope and announces her name and we see Winehouse’s true, unfettered reaction - absolute elation and surprise, a woman who has suddenly achieved more than she ever thought she could. It’s a powerful moment, and it’s because I had come to know Amy Winehouse - because I had sat in cars with her, because I had seen her goof off with her friends, because I had come to like the woman behind the mascara and the beehive - I was swept up in the emotion with her. Knowing where she would end up, knowing that this bright moment was one of the last on her way to the end filled it with an almost unbearable melancholy.
Amy is a great documentary, a film that is shattering, but also a film that feels important. Amy rescues Amy Winehouse the only way possible now, pulling her out of the morass of ugly jokes and nasty comments that piled up on her legacy like mud, reminding us that there was a person under all that, and that the person was talented and good and that the only person she ever really hurt was herself.