Amy Winehouse’s second album “Back to Black” is unquestionably one of the best albums I have ever heard. Bristling with her heartbreak and pain, she infused every song with her signature jazzy sound. The album spawned several singles, including the wildly popular “Rehab” and “Back to Black”.
Director Asif Kapadia’s documentary “Amy” is a remarkable movie for the same reasons. Every frame of the movie is filled with the sorrow that Winehouse lived with on a seemingly daily basis. But the truths that were often sung about and alluded to in Winehouse’s songs are brought to the forefront and Kapadia gives a chance to know Winehouse on a much deeper and more emotional level.
We are all familiar with Winehouse as a public figure and tabloid entity. The drugs, the drinking, the erratic behavior and the mile-high hair – this is the Winehouse that the general public knew. “Amy” doesn’t inform us that the singer-songwriter was a monumental talent. This we already knew. It gives us the first chance to see the woman behind some of the most popular songs of the last decade. The film begins with a young teenage girl belting “Happy Birthday” to a friend. She is young and full of life, possessing a talent most singers dream of having. This girl was the real deal.
Kapadia takes us through her journey to mega-stardom. She would pack herself in a car with some friends, play some gigs and eventually starting meeting with record labels. It doesn’t appear Winehouse had trouble getting signed because her singular brassy voice was something everyone wanted. She would release her first album – “Frank” – and continue to play in clubs to make her songs and name better known. That was released in 2003. Three years later, she would release “Back to Black” and everything would change for the young singer.
Winehouse was 23 when “Back to Black” was released. She started to become much more in demand. She booked more interviews, played in bigger arenas and started gaining public attention. For most artists, this might mean you have made it. “Amy” shows this was everything that Winehouse feared. More than once throughout the film, Winehouse says how she doesn’t want to be famous and if she were to become big, she doesn’t know how she would handle it or if she could handle it. It’s a very eerie premonition.
Some might look at the level of fame Winehouse achieved as a contributing factor to her untimely death at the age of 27. But this is a young woman who had problems long before she became so famous. What’s so beautiful about the film is that it never condemns Winehouse for her demons and never uses them as an excuse for any of her failings. It paints a portrait of a woman who struggled all of her life. She showed signs of trouble from an early age but no one seemed to listen. When she got famous, people – mainly her father, Mitch – didn’t want to disturb the fame ad fortune by making sure she got healthier. It becomes quite infuriating.
We have seen many documentaries and films of this ilk before. A talented singer is undone by their addictions isn’t uncharted territory in movies. “Amy” feels refreshingly new, from a filmmaking standpoint. Kapadia was given access to a breadth of footage of Winehouse. The film is a collection of that footage, with voiceover of friends, family and colleagues telling Winehouse’s story and their relationship with her. There is minimal cutting away to interviews and talking heads, which most documentaries do. This is a much more personal and involving film.
You’ve heard songs like “Rehab” or “Back to Black” numerous times. “Rehab” is more of a toe-tapping song, with its catchy repetitiveness (“and I said no, no, no!”). We know the lines by heart but “Amy” brings such clarity and a much sadder meaning to these songs (“and if my daddy thinks I’m fine”). There is a point in the documentary when Mitch says he doesn’t think his daughter needs help and she needs to keep working. He is not painted in the most positive of lights in this film.
Nothing is off the table in Kapadia’s film. It was important for him to tell this story because it was time for people to know the woman outside of the magazine and headlines. Winehouse just wanted to write music. She didn’t want fame, cameras or even fortune. One of the most devastating lines in the film is when Winehouse tells a friend she would give back all of the fortune and success just to be able to walk down the street without a fuss. This woman just wanted to make music and tell her story.
“Amy” is one of the best films of the year, a sure-fire contender for the Best Documentary Oscar and a sad reminder of a talent that was and a talent that could have been.
‘Amy’ rates 10 out of 10