When I walked out of the theater after seeing Amy, the Asif Kapadia directed documentary about the late Amy Winehouse, I was in tears. My husband, there to give me a ride home, was puzzled. “Why are you crying?” It was a fair question. Obviously I knew she was dead going in. And I was never her biggest fan. I thought she was a gifted singer who wobbled out of control when confronted with fame and fortune.
There was so much I didn’t know.
Weaving a mesmerizing tale from home videos, unreleased footage, still photos, on-screen song lyrics, and interviews with family, friends, band members, producers and managers, the film presents a fleshed-out portrait of a funny, bright, and talented girl who never really wanted to be famous. “I’m not a girl trying to be a star,” she says at one point. “I’ve just gotta sing.”
Amy unfolds chronologically, starting with a home movie of a birthday party for one of her fellow 14-year old girlfriends. Gawky and mischievous, Winehouse clowns for the camera and her friends, then suddenly takes over the singing of “Happy Birthday” in a way that takes your breath away. The teenaged imp had that voice even then- the one that belts and cracks and slithers into unpredictable but perfect places, sounding way beyond its years.
Troubled by her father who was rarely home, leaving the family when she was 9 after carrying on a long affair, and being raised by a passive mother who thought Winehouse’s bulimia was “just a phase,” she sought solace in music, studying the techniques of singers like Billie Holiday, learning to play the guitar, and writing notebooks full of autobiographical poetry. The early clips of her singing with just her guitar for accompaniment are simply gorgeous.
Kapadia deftly delivers the story, using interviews with Winehouse as narrative background to the still photos and interview clips of the singer and her family, friends and colleagues. We see how as her fame grew, so did the singer’s eating disorder and her appetite for alcohol and drugs. By the time Winehouse met future husband Blake Fielder-Civil in 2005, her adoption of his addiction to crack cocaine and heroine was almost a given. She’d been headed down that self-destructive path for some time.
It didn’t help that Winehouse was living in London – aka British Tabloid Central during an era when seeing star foibles from the night before on websites like YouTube and Facebook and programs like TMZ were becoming the norm. Kapadia conveys this brilliantly, showing clips of trying to get out of her Camden house, as 24-7 it was walking into blinding lights and a roaring din of the shouting reporters’ cameras in such a way that even the movie audience becomes blinded and disoriented.
While the film has no narrator, it splatters plenty of damning evidence on both of Winehouse’s parents (particularly her father), Fielder-Civil, her girlfriends, the antidepressants taken from when she was a teenager, her eating disorder, her managers and promoters, and the media. It’s clear that she grew up a troubled child with a darkness she couldn’t shake, but in many of those early clips, she’s a healthy and hilarious prankster. It’s so hard to see her staring out of those childhood stills as the credits roll. It makes you wonder what might have been if the correct father figure or friend or manager or psychologist or drug counselor had intervened early on. If she’d been born in a time when famous people’s private lives weren’t splattered all over the Internet. Toward the end, when her life became synonymous with the term “train wreck,” the film shows clips of late-night comedians making jokes about her public drunkenness. And I can vaguely remember laughing at them then. This time I didn’t laugh – I felt extremely uncomfortable. In the end, we all look a bit guilty.