Like its subject, “Amy” doesn’t follow a conventional path. A moving, unavoidably sad documentary about British soul, jazz and pop star Amy Winehouse, “Amy” has neither a narrator nor the carefully framed, talking-head interviews that are staples of the genre.
Instead, Asif Kapadia tells Winehouse’s story through a vast collection of audio clips and nonprofessional and professional video clips. Using a similar approach, Kapadia previously directed “Senna,” an acclaimed 2010 documentary about another star who died young, Formula 1 race champ Ayrton Senna.
In “Amy,” key players in the singer’s life, including her oldest friends Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert and first manager, Nick Shymansky, and Winehouse herself, do much of the storytelling off camera.
Because the substance-abusing Winehouse spiraled quickly to death at 27 in the summer of 2011, Kapadia’s film is inevitably tragic. He doesn’t avoid disturbing imagery or words. This makes “Amy,” heavy with the grief of those left behind and the knowledge that a daughter, friend and musical genius has been lost, a tough watch.
Even bright spots in “Amy” have a dark side. The film’s most jubilant scene features a stunned Winehouse in 2008, accepting the Grammy Award for record of the year via satellite from London. Tony Bennett, one of her inspirations, and Natalie Cole presented the honor to the fresh-from-rehab Winehouse, who was surrounded by her ecstatic family, friends and band.
Winehouse also performed her autobiographical songs “You Know I’m No Good” and “Rehab” for the broadcast. The New York Times, in its Winehouse-starring account of the 50th annual Grammy Awards, reported that the singer looked sad and slightly haunted during her virtual Grammy appearance. In voiceover, Winehouse’s friend Ashby reveals how badly she felt when the singer confided in her that evening, saying, “This is so boring without drugs.”
Winehouse’s thank-yous during the Grammy broadcast included her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, in jail at the time because he’d been in a pub fight. “For my Blake, my Blake incarcerated,” she said.
Fielder-Civil, a heavy drug and alcohol user who introduced his wife to crack cocaine in 2007, as well as her opportunistic father, Mitchel, come off as villains, or near villains, in the film. The documentary also makes the case that fame and its prosecutorial glare hastened Winehouse’s death.
“It’s a scary thing,” she tells a reporter after her win for best British female at the 2007 Brit Awards. “It’s very scary.”
Footage showing the over-the-edge artist, often accompanied by her beyond-sauced husband, reveals a seemingly unavoidable train wreck in progress.
Despite the film’s abundant coverage of the singer’s troubles, it also makes time to show how talented she was. Her brilliance bloomed early and quickly enough for her to be heard by the world.
Winehouse’s duet with Bennett of “Body and Soul” is her final recording. According to Bennett, no contemporary singer can touch her. In “Amy,” he says with poignant affection and regret, “She was one of the truest jazz singers I’ve ever heard.”