Before becoming a punch line for tabloid-huffing, talkshow-loving misery vampires, Amy Winehouse wasn’t just a star talent, she was a constellation unto herself. Bursting into the moribund pop music scene of the early 2000s with verve and danger, she came on like some savvier Billie Holiday in a field of Auto-Tune tarts. There’s a heavy dose of that briefly blazing performer in Asif Kapadia’s potent, powerful documentary Amy. But there is also the addict part of her personality, busy setting a match to everything even as the accolades pour in for the performer. Everyone knows that the latter personality won out in the end, killing her with alcohol poisoning in 2011 at age 27. What the film helps clarify, with its rich trove of testimony from close associates and intimate video footage, is how little chance the shy but somehow fearless performer ever stood against the determined addict.
The brassy North London teenage Winehouse who appears in the early segments here is in many ways the exact same one who would be carried out of her mansion in a body bag roughly a decade later. The film shows her playing bars as a teenager, gooning around in her friends’ video cameras, a winking charmer with a bravado that masked all the anxiety, bulimia, and drinking that brought her down. Everyone seems to have had a camera running at all times. Kapadia layers the recollections of friends and family in an almost ghost-like counterpoint behind all this handheld footage of Winehouse cheerily mugging cheerily, just another girl trying to make it in music.
At a time when the British charts were packed with Spice Girls-esque bubblepop, Winehouse was a tiny little tattoo-enscrolled guitar-playing jazz singer with a gravity-defying beehive and a powerfully soulful voice who actually wrote her own songs. She modeled herself on the likes of Sarah Vaughan (you could probably see a little Nina Simone in her attitude) and later on looks speechless when recording a duet with Tony Bennett. It all should have been a career-killing attitude resulting in being filed under “Promising, Never Crossed Over.”
But Winehouse’s 2003 debut, Frank, did shockingly well for a jazz record. Three years later, her Back to Black album, with its gutbucket R&B band, girl-group harmonics, and heartfelt lyrics, brought everything together. It also brought in everything that a personality like hers didn’t need: Buckets of money, the full attention of Fleet Street media, and hangers-on looking to hitch a ride on the gravy train.
Once Amy crosses over into that territory, it moves from the story of a troubled star on the rise to full-bore horrorshow. Winehouse’s bad relationships and long bouts of destructive bar-crawling and bingeing play darkly in the background, while the paparazzi swarm in thick packs around her, flashbulbs snapping like rifle fire in an ambush. While the film and the unseen interviewees (Kapadia eschews the usual talking-head format, as in his brilliant Senna) are duly mortified by the sick spectacle — one person refers to it as “life in this horrible goldfish bowl” — a deeper tragedy sits behind it all. In a chilling backbeat to a would-be triumphal peak, after we see Winehouse in a sober phase seemingly transfixed with joyful disbelief after winning the 2008 Grammy for Record of the Year, a childhood friend describes being led backstage by Winehouse who then complained, “It’s just so boring without drugs.”
It’s that moment which helps set Amy aside from so many other nonfiction accounts of tragic stars. The film is awash in sorrow and bleakness, all those haunting shots of her looking fearfully lost, but it doesn’t revel in tear-wringing tragedy. It is also full of moments when one person after another (father, addict husband, promoter) could possibly have helped get her clean instead of back on the road and earning. But Kapadia doesn’t play the “if-only” game, recounting instead the determination with which Winehouse sabotaged every success she had. Her death might not technically have been a suicide, but it was no accident.