Had Amy Winehouse not been a briefly famous musician – had she been an architect or a teacher or even a woman who mopped floors – the documentary “Amy” might have been nearly as compelling.
She became famous as the singer who won five Grammys in 2008 for her second album, “Back to Black,” then died in 2011 without finishing another. But what makes the film so potent is not the loss of a great singer-songwriter (the jury’s out on that) but the demise of a fragile human buffeted by her own addictive personality and unhelpful outside forces. We end up relating to her not as a suffering artist but a suffering person, one who never seemed to find her feet after adolescence.
A controversy about accuracy continues. Her father, Mitch Winehouse, gave director Asif Kapadia (“Senna”) access to archival footage but withdrew support, claiming the movie depicts his family in an unjust way and stresses the unhappiness of her last three years on Earth.
Mitch seems unsympathetic in the picture, a foolish exploiter at best and an incompetent father at worst. But most of the scorn targets the narcissism, drug-taking and remora-like behavior of her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil.
Winehouse, who died at 27, contributed to her demise. She began to vomit after meals as a teen, abetted by parents who thought bulimia seemed a reasonable way to keep weight down. (Really? In the 1990s?) She took cocaine, heroine and alcohol in dangerous quantities, occasionally cleaning herself up but soon relapsing. She dated Fielder-Civil, broke up with him, then married him with a suddenness that suggested she was addicted to him, too.
Her story would be poignant even if she hadn’t sung jazz-pop in a smoky alto my generation tended to underrate when her career soared. That she lived with a volatile balance of artistry, ambition and self-doubt makes her quite a loss.
The most memorable scene comes in her final recording session, cutting “Body and Soul” with Tony Bennett for his “Duets” album. As she frays after continual retakes, Bennett (who had to kick cocaine himself) gentles her like a wise groom calming a nervous thoroughbred. Watching this pairing of someone who has come through that fire and someone who never would leaves you shaken.
The film could be used as a primer for anyone who wants to prove drugs and alcohol destroy you when used in excess. In one scene, she takes the stage with profound anxiety, plucking at herself and shivering. In another, she comes out with a slack-jawed grin, unaware why she’s standing among all these musicians.
Kapadia makes paparazzi seem the scummiest people on the planet with a legal job. Popping flashbulbs slap Winehouse in the face as she staggers out of her apartment and pursue her down the street like lasers.
So if you ask who brought Amy Winehouse low, top spots on the list go to family, friends and people in the record industry who put their interests before hers until they burned her out.
But somewhere on that list would be “journalists” who claim the right to invade celebrities’ lives 24 hours a day, snatching minuscule bits of fame for themselves – and, of course, the tabloid magazine readers and TV watchers who fuel that feeding frenzy.
This documentary about the late Amy Winehouse has been challenged for accuracy by some survivors. It reveals a talented singer whose “supporters” didn’t protect her from self-destructive impulses.
B+ DIRECTOR: Asif Kapadia.
RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes.
RATING: R (language and drug material).