To anyone who’d been following British singer Amy Winehouse’s life and career, her 2011 death from alcohol poisoning at age 27 didn’t come as a surprise. Her last few years seemed like one long downward spiral, culminating in an infamous Belgrade appearance where she was too drunk to sing.
Asif Kapadia’s documentary “Amy” doesn’t offer a wealth of new information to Winehouse fans, but it fills in certain blanks. For instance, it reveals that she struggled with bulimia, as well as substance abuse, and that her eating disorder also contributed to her death. The VH1 show “Behind the Music” has established a formula for depicting celebrities: early struggle, success, addiction (or some other tragedy), death or comeback. “Amy” doesn’t subvert this so much as cleanse the tabloid sheen from it. The images of Winehouse and husband Blake Fielder doing crack and heroin aren’t nearly as shocking as the blinding light of the flashbulbs that greet them every time they open their front door. When complimented on her voice, Winehouse accepts the praise but says that she would take her talent back in order to be able to live a normal life.
As in his 2010 documentary “Senna,” Kapadia shows a desire to break out of the interview/ archival footage formula followed by too many non-fiction films. Like “Senna,” “Amy” was made after its subject’s death, but the filmmaker had access to a wealth of home movies, interview clips, and performance videos. It helps that Winehouse’s life was well-documented — for example, we get to see her audition for Island Records and hear her sing “Moon River” at age 16 — even if that didn’t do her any good in the long run.
“Amy” disconnects sound and image. Rarely do we see a person speaking in real time, although the film often shows pictures or films of an interview subject from an earlier period as he or she talks. This creates a distancing effect, especially when certain people, like Winehouse’s drug counselor and doctor, are heard but never shown. One effect it has on the film is making her music much more vivid. “Amy” includes plenty of performance footage, often altered by running lyrics on-screen, and the buoyancy of Winehouse’s music, despite its dark corners, keeps the film from being utterly depressing.
Winehouse’s debut album, “Frank,” borrowed from jazz. Her follow-up, “Back To Black,” drew from Motown, Phil Spector, and girl groups. What kept her music from becoming a total nostalgia act — the post-punk/ hip-hop band Sleaford Mods posthumously dissed her as “Samey Winehouse” — was the personal nature of her lyrics. This came across most strongly on the song that made her a star, “Rehab,” which simultaneously expresses a desire to stop drinking and a refusal to get treatment for her alcoholism. In retrospect, Winehouse was commodifying her addiction, but she couldn’t have foreseen that “Back To Black” would wind up selling 10 million copies worldwide. “Rehab” is a great song; it also led down the road to Jay Leno making cracks about her doing meth and heroin, as if she weren’t a vulnerable woman struggling with a serious problem.
Winehouse seems to have bottomed out during her marriage to Fielder, who introduced her to hard drugs (alcohol had been a problem for her since she was a teenager). “Amy” debunks the myth that addiction fuels creativity; Winehouse never managed to record a follow-up to “Back to Black,” despite several failed attempts. She saw getting it together enough to record a song with her hero, Tony Bennett, as a major triumph. In the last few years of her life, she gave up drugs but she continued to drink heavily. She re-connected with old friends, and she planned new projects, like putting together a group with rapper Yasiin Bey and Roots drummer ?uestlove.
Unfortunately, Winehouse lost her battle with the bottle. Kapadia would have to be a completely incompetent filmmaker not to make something moving of Winehouse’s life story; his biggest strength is not jerking tears but showing how many opportunities there were for her life to turn in another direction. “Amy” has been criticized as inaccurate or unfair by some of the people depicted in it, particularly Winehouse’s father Mitch, yet it’s less interested in settling old scores or casting blame than in wondering what might have been.
AMY | Directed by Asif Kapadia | A24 | Opens Jul. 3 | Landmark Sunshine Cinema, 143 E. Houston St., btwn. First & Second Aves.; landmarkth