There is something intensely macabre about the process of watching the shattering new documentary on British singer/songwriter sensation Amy Winehouse, who died of alcohol-related heart failure at the age of 27 in July 2011. It’s a gripping and thoroughly effective, perhaps even brilliant piece of biographical documentary filmmaking, as one would expect from the director who brought us award-winning biodoc “Senna” in 2010. Put together from a welter of material that, like recent title “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” uses home movie footage, along with voiceover excerpts from family and friends, and snippets of Winehouse’s performances and interviews, the portrait doc helmer Asif Kapadia builds of Winehouse is fluid and comprehensive. It really feels as though we are with her day by day, tracking her every move, parsing her every expression, her every stumble, especially in those final months as the zero hour approaches. And that’s also the source of a great part of the discomfort of watching “Amy“—often using footage from the very paparazzi sources that hounded her, we basically spend at least half of this dense, two-hour film watching Amy Winehouse slowly die: a snuff movie played with minute attention to detail.
A sense of intrusion, bordering on prurience, is present from the very beginning as we open with home video footage of an absurdly young Winehouse horsing around with lollipops on the stairs with her friends. She is bright, pretty, relaxed, rude — she is an ordinary girl, if gobbier than most. But it is someone’s birthday, and half-jokingly, Winehouse launches into a torch-style rendition of “Happy Birthday” and suddenly hairs stand up all over your body. When the titles appear to the accompaniment of a youth orchestra rendition of “Moon River” with a teenage Winehouse’s vocals on them, full on shivers set in. Amy Winehouse was a startling, once-in-a-generation talent.
But Kapadia’s focus is actually not on her voice or her songwriting skills. Performances and recordings abound, often with the particularly apropos lyrics written onscreen, but they mostly punctuate and often counterpoint the grim devolution story that happens from the mid point of the film on. These glimpses feel more precisely like what we should be honoring — any fan will thrill to see actual video footage of Winehouse laying down the vocal track for “Back To Black,” a song producer Mark Ronson tells us she wrote in a couple of hours. A late-on appearance with Tony Bennett is another example, while a clip from an interview with her when she was a relatively unknown jazz singer is priceless for her unguarded, wonderful reaction to the interviewer going off on a tangent about Dido. I mean, Dido. Scenes like these and those of her cavorting with her old friends, and the brief moment when she’s radiantly, infectiously happy are when you understand just how magnetic and charismatic a person she was, and just why it was so difficult for anyone around her to take her in hand.
Not that, according to Kapadia, many of them truly tried all that hard— one of the film’s ethically questionable decisions is the overt portrayal of the people in her life as divided into categories of hero or villain. Her no-good husband Blake Fielder Civil comes out as the worst villain of all, but her absentee father, who even tried to bilk his daughter’s fame into a short-lived reality TV show isn’t too far behind. And on the other end of the scale we have her friends like Mos Def, her bodyguards and her childhood buddies— those who tried valiantly to save Amy from herself, and those whose later voiced-over interviews are haunted by a heartbreaking regret and guilt. Her best friend Jill, almost permanently on the verge of tears, tells a devastating story of the last phone call from her old friend, just the day before she died, that ripped my heart out of my chest several times over. But mostly, we get the impression that rapacious fathers, co-dependent husbands, opportunist promoters, ravenous public—everyone wanted a piece of Amy.
But then, that appetite for Amy Winehouse is exactly what Kapadia’s film exists to satisfy, even now years after her death. “I don’t think I’d be able to handle it,” said Winehouse at 18 when asked if she wanted fame, and so it proved to be. So would Amy like “Amy” or would she be horrified? The film requires the reflective viewer to do a little soul-searching themselves: what is the purpose of us knowing all these intimate, heartrending details about Amy Winehouse’s addictions, her ruinous relationships, her erosion of her body through bulimia, alcohol and drugs, her private life and horribly public death? As well made, gripping and genuinely sad as it is what purpose does “Amy” truly serve outside the further exploitation of a tragically exploited young woman? For damn sure it will not stop us tearing into the next 18 year-old singing star with exactly the same sharp-toothed relish.
“Amy” is an artifact of exactly the celebrity culture it convincingly suggests is at least partially responsible for her untimely, wasteful demise — in fact it feels just a little like assassinating Amy Winehouse all over again, only this time in excruciating close up and extreme slow motion. The greatest (and most useless) sorrow that Kapadia’s punchingly powerful film will leave you with is that, no matter how much you will want to, you cannot simply reach into the screen and save her, you can only bear witness once again to this particular tragedy and try to discern the lesson it might have to teach us. [B+]