Booze, drugs, Svengalis galore, rampant co-dependence: The bare bones of a crash-and-burn rocker bio-pic poke through Asif Kapadia's richly absorbing documentary about the short, sharp life of Amy Winehouse. Here and there Amy flirts with prurience, but prurience is hard to avoid with a young woman who, willy-nilly, lived her private life in public. And if ever there was an artist whose life and work fed one another for better and worse, it was Winehouse.
Kapadia — whose last film was a 2010 portrait of another compulsive risk-taker, Brazilian Formula One car racer Ayrton Senna — has woven familiar archival footage through a fresh trove of home movies and frank testimony from friends and associates who until now have mostly kept their counsel. Among other things, they offer a fascinating glimpse into Winehouse's early days, before the beehive, the tattoos and eyeliner wings, the heroin and cocaine. Long before that infamous Belgrade concert where she seized up and unraveled in plain sight, Amy Winehouse was, as one former friend puts it, "like a classic North London Jewish girl with lots of attitude."
That qualifying "like" matters. Winehouse was already being treated for bulimia and depression in her teens, possibly because of her father's departure to live with another woman. But those early home movies also show a sassy, exuberant girl with a razor-sharp bull detector and a precocious, assessing intelligence that both seduced and unnerved those around her. She never quite lost the sass, but inevitably Amy soon turns into the story of abundant promise gone to waste.
As Kapadia tells the story, Winehouse was lucky in her childhood friends, notably her first manager, Nick Shymansky, and two girlfriends, who stuck by her until her compulsive self-sabotage sporadically drove them away. She was less lucky in her parents, a loving but passive mother and a domineering father she adored till the end, despite the fact that he repeatedly advised her against going into rehab when she needed it most. She adored her husband, Blake Fielder, seen here as a junkie who did little but bask in her reflected glory and restock her with heroin whenever she managed to get clean. At the height of her success she says, pitifully, "I want to feel like he felt."
With good reason, Amy is hard on these two men and on the media who fed off her instability. But Kapadia doesn't let Amy off the hook either. As every teen learns going into adulthood, attitude is not the same thing as strength, and the film suggests Winehouse never developed the inner resources to weather life's common hurts and losses. She buckled when her beloved grandmother died, and when Fielder was sent to prison. She stuck with those who preyed on her and alienated those who supported her. There were times when only her bodyguard was left to set limits on her benders. That she rebounded just before the end adds to her tragedy.
Yet Amy also pays warm homage to Winehouse the musician, and not just because of the astonishing voice — the throaty roar of a trained soul singer in full maturity — that poured out of that tiny body. Never a follower of fashion, Winehouse remained wide open to many musical sources. The Goth look, the lyrics that put "rehab" and "no, no, no" together couldn't fail to win over young audiences. Amy also makes us see why she enchanted so many across generations, from jazz to garage-band fans to the Tony Bennett demographic who thrilled to the standards the two sang so beautifully together.
"Life teaches you how to live it, if you're lucky enough to live that long," says Bennett, who brought out the old soul in Winehouse and who comes across in the movie as a true gent who saw that for his young collaborator, time was always running out. "All I'm good for is making tunes," she tells one interviewer. "So leave me alone to do that." Her time ran out far too early, but the luck is all ours — we still have the voice.