The question at the center of Asif Kapadia’s new documentary Amy is: Can gossip foster compassion? Throughout the sensitive, 128-minute probe into the life of singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, we see footage of (and presumably shot by) the paparazzi that plagued her, the performances that defined part of her career, the public inebriation that overshadowed it.
We hear from Amy quite a bit in archival interview footage, but more often, we hear from her associates via new interviews recorded for this movie. Most of those friends, peers, and family members never appear onscreen—their voices play over pictures and footage of Winehouse. As she was to most of her audience in life, Winehouse in death remains an idea, a collection of images and sounds and outside opinions. The scrutiny that contributed to Winehouse’s decline also fuels Kapadia’s feature-length tribute.
It’s just that the guiding hand is softer, fairer, and more comprehensive. And for that reason, in addition to the documentary’s terrific editing and pacing, the recontextualizing here is highly effective. I loved Amy Winehouse while she was alive—slurred performances and smeared mascara and all—but I don’t think I ever quite appreciated her as much as I did after seeing Amy. For a full week now, I’ve thought about her virtually nonstop. I’ve gone back and listened to her music, including her perfect 2006 album Back to Black. I’ve watched full concerts and TV appearances. I’ve mourned her 2011 death all over again.
Now more than ever, I realize that she was the realest of real deals. Amy’s greatest service to its subject is connecting the dots between her private life and what she shared publicly. Her lyrics often literally encapsulated her turbulent relationships—with men in general and especially with Blake Fielder-Civil, with whom she had a brief affair whose temporary termination served as the basis for much of Back to Black. (They eventually reunited, married, shot up heroin together, smoked crack, and divorced.)
Fielder-Civil is one of the film’s unspoken antagonists for saddling Winehouse with demons that helped do her in, but the section about their falling in love and his subsequent abandonment was one of the film’s most poignant to me. Winehouse met the love of her life, the guy she always wanted around, the man whose mere presence turned her sepia world into Technicolor, and then he returned to the woman whom he’d left. That kind of post-rejection longing characterized Winehouse’s relationships with many of the men in her life. There’s a heartbreaking voicemail recording Winehouse left her then-former manager Nick Shymansky where she tells him, in a voice that is more matter-of-fact than pleading, “I will love you unconditionally till my heart fails and I fall down dead.”
Winehouse’s words in the movie have an extra layer of poignancy in light of her death at age 27. During a promotional interview for her debut album, 2003’s Frank, we hear her say, “I don’t think I’m going to be at all famous. I couldn’t handle it. I think I’d go mad.” And so she did. Elsewhere, we hear her say, “I write songs because I’m fucked up in the head,” and so, it would seem, she was.
Kapadia’s portrait of Winehouse is more loving than those of the past. There’s an entire montage within about the jokes made at the consistently fucked-up Winehouse’s expense post-Back to Black. Kapadia, though, is sometimes too loving. We don’t get much of a sense of how erratic her performances were. We hear Mos Def mention that at a certain point, she was more likely to play a bad show than a good one, and we see some brief footage of her woozily warbling live, but that’s about it. I remember thinking when she performed “Love Is a Losing Game” at the Mercury Awards in 2007 with only a gently plucked guitar as her accompaniment, “Wow, this is a moment of clarity,” because of all of the insane performances that had preceded it. Though that flawless rendition plays virtually in its entirety in Amy, as well it should, you don’t really get a sense of how momentous it felt.
Nor do you get a sense, really, that the public’s response to Winehouse’s inebriated antics came from disappointment (and to some degree, a sense of entitlement) over seeing someone throwing away her immense talent. What Ann Powers wrote about Whitney Houston in 2009 applied to Winehouse to some degree as well: “The pain and, frankly, disgust that so many pop fans felt during Houston’s decline was caused not so much by her personal distress as by her seemingly careless treatment of the national treasure that happened to reside within her.”
Of course, there’s only so much time and Kapadia has a neat, cinematic story to tell—one so universal it’s almost trite (girl has everything including awe-inspiring talent, and then loses it all, including her life), one about a person who was so one-of-a-kind that she barely seems real in retrospect. There’s plenty to get mad at here—her opportunistic father, her mother’s nonchalant reaction to her teenage daughter’s bulimia (“My feeling is that it would pass”—it didn’t), Fielder-Civil’s entire presence, her team’s mismanagement of her career.
There’s also plenty to delight in, including Winehouse’s no-bullshit attitude, her wit, and her shade thrown in the direction of peers like Dido and Justin Timberlake. There are some revelations that were news to me—for example, according to many sources she was sober at the 2008 Grammy Awards when she famously thanked “Blake Incarcerated” during her acceptance speech for Record of the Year. Her childhood friend Juliette Ashby claims Winehouse took her aside later that night and told her, “Jules, this is so boring without drugs.” But mostly, Amy is a refresher, a way of making sense of a human being whose public profile was chaos personified.
That chaos was, of course, a huge part of what made Amy Winehouse fascinating. It fueled interest that the paparazzi reacted to with 24/7 surveillance that made Winehouse even more troubled that made her even more interesting. It’s why Amy is simultaneously a moving experience and prolonged gawkfest. For better and most certainly worse, Winehouse had a way of making her demons downright consumable. She seemed to live as honestly as she sang, and we saw so much of her but received so little original music (two albums and a compilation of demos and remixes) during her short life that it’s disingenuous to pretend like her smudged persona wasn’t a key feature of her art.
As “Rehab” was taking off and her profile was skyrocketing, Winehouse was asked in an interview about her level of comfort with becoming a celebrity. She expressed that she was not at all comfortable with it. “The more people see of me, the more they’ll realize all I’m good for is making tunes,” she said. That’s the only time in the movie that I could detect that Winehouse said something incorrect about herself.
[Image via Getty]