You don’t need to be a fan of British singer Amy Winehouse to be moved by the documentary Amy, a devastating examination of the deadly effect that celebrity culture, media and drugs can have on artists. This is not a new story — think Janis Joplin, Sid Vicious, Kurt Cobain, Whitney Houston. In fact, we seem to hear this story with increasing frequency. But it may never have been told with the intimacy, the insight and the unflinching gaze of this film.
Amy takes you along as our culture’s dominant fantasy — that of becoming a pop star — comes true for one young woman and shows how the dream turns into a nightmare, perhaps inevitably.
A phenomenally talented soul and jazz singer and a songwriter with a rare instinct for turning her life into catchy, sharp-witted confessionals, Winehouse rocketed to fame not just via her talent but also with her defiant persona. She embodied nihilistic live-fast die-young glamour. Her most popular song on Youtube is still Rehab, where she declares “no no no” she won’t go.
Instead Winehouse died in 2011 at age 27, her body destroyed by drinking and drugs. Amy shows us why and how. The emotional openness that was a key part of Winehouse’s talent (and her charisma) made her particularly vulnerable. Her psyche was shattered by an incestuous partnership between a star-hungry pop music business and a cannibalistic media that ate her up, then ate her alive. She was particularly needy about men, but the ones who should have cared for her most — her husband (and partner in addiction), her father, and her second manager — instead rode her fame until she collapsed. (Winehouse’s family has complained that the film is misleading, but the actions of her father and others close to her are hard to interpret any other way.)
The British team behind Amy — director Asif Kapadia, producer James Gay-Rees and editor Chris King (award winners for the 2010 documentary Senna, on race car driver Ayrton Senna) — have made a film for the social media age. There are no talking head interviews. Instead, Amy is a dense stream of recorded voices, personal video and photos, TV and radio interviews, shots of Winehouse’s scribbled lyrics, moments captured at a friend’s home or in the studio, concert and paparazzi footage superbly edited into an immersive timeline.
The filmmakers persuaded an impressive number of people close to Winehouse to participate, including producers, band members, label execs, her parents and her bodyguard. Also involved are, most notably, her two oldest friends, Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert; and her first manager, Nick Shymansky, who started working with the singer when she was just 16 (and he was only 19.) The trio provided key insight, as well as video and photos of Winehouse before she became famous. We see a round-faced, cheerful, sarcastic but idealistic teenager, cracking jokes in the car, showing off her first apartment. There are even photos and video Winehouse took of herself.
The personal footage can be disorientingly choppy. But it also makes Amy feel extraordinarily real and the contrast with the callous media barrage that comes later all the more chilling.
Amy presents fascinating details of Winehouse’s talent — a producer describes her writing Back to Black, one of her most powerful songs, in a few hours — and her self-destructiveness. That she is initially so genuine and so scornful of pop culture (she literally picks her teeth at one pompous TV host) doesn’t save her from being sucked into the whirlpool. Early on she declares that “all I’m good for is making music” and that she’d “go mad” if she became famous. The comment is as chillingly insightful as her songs.
Toward the end we see a dazed Winehouse, tottering on high heels, flaccid flesh hanging on her skeletal frame, lit by a white storm of paparazzi flashbulbs, caught in a bizarre celebrity hell. We love our stars so much that sometimes we consume them.
With: Amy Winehouse, Blake Fielder, Mitchel Winehouse, Tony Bennett.
Director: Asif Kapadia.
An A24 Films release. Running time: 128 minutes. Rated R. Sexual content, drug use, vulgar language. Playing at area theaters.