Amy Winehouse was famous all her adult life, or at least on the way there. You can track her decline, which culminated with her death at age 27, through her stage performances in the excellent new documentary “Amy.”
Early on, as a nominal adult in her late teens with baby fat still clinging to her cheeks, Winehouse is visibly absorbed in the music that soars out of her mouth, even while possessing the stage presence of someone well beyond her years. A few years later, performing “Rehab” for the umpteenth time, she’s hollow-gazed and far less present, practically rolling her eyes at the audience, whom she regards with what could euphemistically be called bemusement.
A month before her demise from alcohol poisoning, she refuses to sing at all at a Belgrade concert where she’s a headliner. A gaunt Winehouse turns her back to the audience and scowlingly grins at the angry uproar she’s causing until she’s eventually booed off the stage (though we don’t see this last part).
Fame killed Winehouse, argues director Asif Kapadia (“Senna”), though it can’t wield a knife or shoot a gun. Featuring footage from home videos, performances, publicity appearances, paparazzi tapes, private and professional photographs, and audio interviews (the film studiously avoids the talking head), “Amy” is both biography and autopsy, an exhaustive chronicle of her rise to the top of the charts and a bare-knuckled indictment of the vulturish men who took advantage of the emotionally vulnerable singer, including father Mitch Winehouse and ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil. (The elder Winehouse has denounced the film as misleading and untruthful.)
From the start, Kapadia pits celebrity against authenticity. In older recordings, the adolescent crooner declares a small, intimate jazz club to be the ideal venue for her songs and toys with her Monroe piercing when she gets bored during a TV interview. Her lack of polish is as charming as her gap-toothed smile and her unapologetically marble-mouthed North London accent. Winehouse’s vertigo-inducingly fast ascent — despite her tendencies toward drug-lulled procrastination — is all the more crowd-pleasing for how much of her songwriting was wrenched from the heart.
The more successful Winehouse gets, though, the deeper she falls into addiction and neediness — the inextricable other half of the double helix of her life. Much of Kapadia’s reportage from this second half is the stuff of tabloids: her disheveled appearance, her excessive drinking and drug use, her public fights and make-outs with Fielder-Civil, her trips to the emergency room for “exhaustion.” Perhaps there was little else in her life, though. The eyes peering into the media fishbowl that was her world seemed to see it all.
Like all theories, though, the doc’s “truth vs. phoniness” narrative has a few blind spots. Kapadia’s framing of Winehouse as a martyr to fame frustratingly boxes her in as a victim. The singer is no longer around to explain her relapses and recklessness, but the interviews could have better probed Winehouse’s refusal to take care of herself, even after doctors’ warnings that her next round of drinks could be her last. Addiction is a sinister disease, but the film’s moral portraiture of its subject teeters on drug-laced hagiography.
Underdeveloped but just as compelling is the contrast between Winehouse’s musical maturity, most realized in that unforgettable contralto, and her emotional naiveté. Based on her continued tolerance of her father’s bald opportunism, she evidently never got over his abandonment of his family when the singer was nine. By her own admission, those memories of rejection made her love Fielder-Civil all the more. Winehouse so wanted to be one with her husband that when he cut his hand on some broken glass while less than sober, she broke the bottle in her hand and gashed herself with it so she could experience everything he did. If Winehouse’s emotional life illustrates anything, it’s that love is best learned not from songs.
Was there any hope for this girl-woman whose genius was her undoing? That’s the unspoken question that haunts the film. Winehouse’s musical talent earned her a $250,000 deal before she turned 20, and her output — as brilliant as it could be — was as erratic as her behavior. But Winehouse’s success all but guaranteed that she never needed to learn to be consistent or even-keeled — just herself.
That show-biz privilege allowed her to take much for granted, most of all her body — her voice, her heart, her liver — from which she demanded everything until it finally gave out.