Rated R for language and drug material.
Running time: 128 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.
There’s a scene toward the end of “Amy,” the documentary about the dizzyingly quick rise and fall of Amy Winehouse, that provides a glimmer of hope, even though we’re constantly aware that her demise is inevitable.
It’s the night of the 2008 Grammy Awards, where the singer-songwriter would go on to win five prizes. She’s not at the ceremony itself, but rather at a private party back home in London, watching the glittering spectacle play out at 2 a.m. local time. Tony Bennett and Natalie Cole are reading off the nominees for Record of the Year, including her megahit “Rehab,” inspired by her struggles with substance abuse and her reluctance to get clean. When Bennett announces she’s won — her idol, of all the people in all the world — she stands on stage wide-eyed, stunned and speechless, perhaps for the first time in her life.
In this moment, Winehouse radiates a girlish giddiness, an innocence, similar to what we saw of her in home movies at the film’s start. You can just imagine a thought bubble over her head screaming: “OMG!!! Tony Bennett said my name!!!” And you can imagine what drew her to music in the first place. There’s a purity in her reaction and an irresistible sense of humanity. Yes, she’s a superstar, but also a music fan, just like us, first and foremost.
But soon afterward, there’s a return to her harsh reality, as was so often the case throughout the highs and lows of Winehouse’s life. One of her lifelong friends recalls Winehouse confiding in her backstage that night that she didn’t know how to be — that winning five Grammys without drugs was no fun.
And suddenly, the poppy, catchy “Rehab” — the tune that catapulted this working-class Jewish girl from North London to the kind of worldwide fame she never wanted — sounds like the saddest song ever written. Three years later, she’d be dead, the ravages of alcohol and drug abuse on her tiny body finally taking their toll at the magically tragic age 27.
First, though, we get to know that girl, whose charisma, musical gifts and singular style were evident from an early age, even while doing something as simple as singing “Happy Birthday to You” to one of her best friends at age 13.
Director Asif Kapadia had a wealth of archival footage to pull from; Winehouse happened to grow up in an era when cameras, and later smart phones, were cheap and ubiquitous. Similar to his 2011 documentary “Senna” — about another highly talented figure who enjoyed a brief but brilliant career, Brazilian Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna — he weaves it all together in impressionistic wisps. Kapadia doesn’t rely on the typical talking heads, but rather provides glimpses into a life, with new interviews with friends and colleagues providing audio context.
The result is a mesmerizing yet devastating look at a singular talent. It’s an indictment, to be sure, of the people closest to her who enabled and exploited her, but also a heartbreaking reminder of what a gifted performer Winehouse was.
Editor Chris King seamlessly mixes home movies, behind-the-scenes video, stage performances and candid moments — everything from the mundane to the sublime, woven together through Winehouse’s music and often the lyrics themselves, which appear on screen before wafting away. It’s a powerful device because Winehouse wrote in such honest and vivid fashion about her life, her struggles, her mistakes. Hearing songs like “You Know I’m No Good” and “Love Is a Losing Game” is one thing. Seeing the words provides an emotionally raw road map to her eventual destruction.
First, though, we get the joy of seeing her in the early days, when she was a teenager with talent beyond her years. She was an old soul, clearly, but also an irrepressible and playful flirt. She knew how to work a room. She was magnetic. It’s also kind of fun to see her signature style evolve over the years from just a ponytail and eyeliner to the full-on tats, teased-up coif and retro-chic wardrobe.
It’s clear early on, as she’s writing, performing and recording more often and building an audience, that she’s doing it for the love of music and feels uncomfortable with the prospect of megafame. She’s funny, brash and intriguingly flawed, but also quite insecure, bulimic and prone to toxic, co-dependent relationships with men.
Two prime villains emerge. One is her father, Mitch Winehouse, who abandoned the family for another woman when Winehouse was 9 but returned once she achieved fame. He’s the inspiration behind the line: “I ain’t got the time/And if my daddy thinks I’m fine,” in “Rehab”; he wanted her out on the road, making money, rather than getting the help she clearly needed. Once she did get out of one of many stints in rehab, and sought peace with a few close friends on St. Lucia, Mitch Winehouse tellingly brought along a reality-show camera crew to document his supposed involvement in her rejuvenation. (Also tellingly, the family has disassociated itself with “Amy,” calling it inaccurate.)
The other is Blake Fielder-Civil, her on-again, off-again boyfriend and husband who hooked her not just on his love but on the drugs that eventually would kill her. One of the most frustrating parts of watching “Amy” is seeing her take Fielder-Civil back after the massive success of “Back to Black” — an album whose lyrics blister and burn with the heartache she suffered when he left her the first time. If there is any flaw to this beautiful film, it’s that it doesn’t quite connect the dots as to how all these reconciliations occurred.
Other men in her life are far more supportive, including her first manager, Nick Shymansky, and Mark Ronson, who produced “Back to Black.” Their love and respect for her talent — and their sense of grief — shine through. Even fleeting colleagues and friends have illuminating insights; The Roots’ drummer, Questlove, recalls what a hardcore geek Winehouse was for jazz and how she’d consistently stump him with the selections she’d share with him, even though he considers himself an aficionado.
Whether you’re a serious fan or merely knew her music in passing, “Amy” will make you see the woman and the artist through fresh, sad eyes.