In 2011, filmmaker Asif Kapadia recounted the life and times of iconic Brazilian Formula 1 racing driver Ayrton Senna in his riveting documentary Senna. Simultaneously a biopic and sport picture, Kapadia’s film was unique among documentaries because it was stitched together entirely from archive footage pooled from TV broadcasts, behind-the-scenes prints as well as home videos.
Now, Kapadia turns his attention to another legend and icon that was taken away from us too soon: the incomparable and prodigiously-talented singer Amy Winehouse who life was tragically cut short at the age of 27 in 2011 due to alcohol poisoning. Like most people, my first exposure to Winehouse’s music was “Rehab,” her infectious Grammy-winning hit that, thanks to its subject matter, the singer’s sultry voice and throwback R&B sound, made her a global superstar in 2007. But that chart-topper was merely a teaser of things to come.
Her album, the magnificent Back to Black, was a masterpiece of contemporary R&B and jazz that made everyone, from Tony Bennett to Mos Def, to stop and take notice. It was a legit phenomenon that made the career of producer Mark Ronson and paved the way for an arsenal of female artists from Adele to Duffy to Florence and the Machine. But with that success, came the searing spotlight of the media which eventually lead to her downfall via drug and alcohol abuse. And then one day in 2011, it all came to an end.
Like Senna, Kapadia avoids talking heads, graphics, factoids or sensationalist montages to tell Winehouse’s tragic story. Instead, he utilizes archival footage pulled from concert performances, numerous private home videos, unseen behind-the-scenes footage, cell phone videos and voicemails, news reports, paparazzi videos and more than a 100 audio interviews with many of the singer’s closest friends and family members to weave an in-depth and intimate documentary that is as profoundly moving as it is informative.
Through this archival footage, as well as the brilliant decision to use her painfully personal lyrics to highlight her frame of mind, Kapadia successfully darts past the media scrutiny and paparazzi shots to reveal the real Amy. What we get is a touching and ultimately heartbreaking portrait of a funny, charismatic and ill young woman whose only passion was to sing and write. A scene in which she shows her long-time friend Lauren Gilbert around her new apartment while pretending to be an Eastern European maid is a hilarious example of her wit and wild personality. This scene, along with many other private home videos, goes a long way in humanizing this girl who the media inhumanely dismissed as a crazy crack addict with the beehive hairdo and weird tattoos.
Starting with her Jewish upbringing in North London, Kapadia chronicles Amy’s early songwriting days and friendships with then-manager Nick Shymansky and best friend Juliette Ashby before delving into her rapid rise with her debut album Frank and achieving unexpected global superstardom with Back to Black in 2006-07. Kapadia also addresses the singer’s destructive relationship with then-husband Blake Fielder-Civil—the cancerous leach who introduced her to crack cocaine—as well as how she channeled her pain into her songwriting. For example, “Back to Black,” arguably her magnum opus, was inspired by her on-and-off relationship with who had left her for an ex-girlfriend in 2006 before coming back to her once the new album broke out.
The documentation of Winehouse’s troubles with drugs and alcohol begin about halfway through the picture’s 128 minute running time – just as her career hits the stratosphere. But what exactly was it that caused this shining star to seek refuge in these vices? Was it her sudden fame and her inability to keep up with that new and scary lifestyle? Or was it her family — specifically her money-grubbing father Mitch and Fielder-Civil, both who rarely ever looked out for her best interests, instead focusing on riding the gravy train? Was it the paparazzi and the media’s demonization of her? More than anything, it was her struggle with mental illness, including manic depression and bulimia, coupled with the exhaustion of celebrity that drove her down the rabbit hole. Still, the saddest part of Amy’s story was how we all gawked, ridiculed and passed judgment on her as she slowly faded to black. Amy is indeed a sad movie, but it’s also a hymn to a remarkable talent and one of the year’s best docs.
Running time: 128 minutes
Rating: R (for language and drug material)