Winehouse documentary examines singer’s troubled life
Powerhouse British jazzpop singer-writer Amy Winehouse died four years ago at the age of 27. The official cause was alcohol poisoning, but what wasn’t openly considered was her heroin addiction and battle with bulimia, not to mention the emotional toil during the many rises and falls in her relatively brief musical career. But despite the fact that this sounds awfully depressing, keep it on your “to see” list.
British documentarian Asif Kapadia has put together an intimate look at the troubled entertainer, and though it comes to a terrible end, and there are some wince-inducing moments, he infuses the first half of “Amy” with a great deal of positive energy: tracing her beginnings as a singer, and her evolution as a lyricist and a performer.
Kapadia begins the film with Winehouse, age 15, singing “Happy Birthday” to a pal. Before the opening credits are done, there she is, at 16, singing “Moon River” in front of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. A decade, two well received albums, and five Grammy statues later, she’s gotten mixed up with people who were good for her and people who weren’t. Her drug-addled husband, Blake FielderCivil, was probably a bit of both. Her father, Mitchell, comes across as the film’s villain, using his daughter’s success as a springboard for his own, and insisting that she didn’t need to go to rehab – part of which she chronicles in her hit “Rehab,” which is, as was most of her work, autobiographical.
Kapadia never got to interview Winehouse, but research got him in touch with plenty of people who knew her well, and whose trust he eventually earned to the degree that they would talk about her and share photos and video of her with him. But this is no typical “talking heads” documentary. There’s footage of Winehouse speaking and performing, but almost everything else is done in voiceover by the participants.
The most interesting approach Kapadia took was to give a whole new appreciation of Winehouse as a composer, by showing pages from her diaries, which contained what would become her songs, as the songs are being performed. So viewers can read the lyrics while hearing her sing them. There’s no doubt that there will be fervent emotional reactions to the words of “Stronger Than Me,” in which she longs for a partner that fits that title, or for the self-explanatory “Love Is a Losing Game.”
But even if the words weren’t there, it would be impossible not to be knocked out by the passion that Winehouse gave to her live performances, whether she’s seen at 18, sitting in a record company office, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar and singing “I Heard Live Is Blind” or later playing in a small club with just an electric guitar or even later, with a full band at a huge outdoor festival.