[dropcap]A[/dropcap]my Winehouse died on July 23, 2011 of accidental alcohol poisoning. At that point in her life, she was best recognized for her dramatic winged eyeliner, beehive hairstyle, and frighteningly skinny frame. “Amy,” director Asif Kapadia’s stunning documentary about the late star, opens with grainy footage of a very different Amy Winehouse: a young teenager with flushed, puffy cheeks, bright eyes, and huge smile, singing Happy Birthday to one of her best friends. The second we hear that mesmerizing voice, every audience member is a goner, bound to the captivating, heartbreaking story that will unfold over the next two hours.
Kapadia, who directed the acclaimed 2010 documentary “Senna,” does something fascinating here: he completely foregoes talking head interviews. Instead, he recorded nearly 100 audio interviews with those closest to Winehouse, and has their words playing over archival footage of the star. There’s a ton of footage in “Amy,” ranging from home videos and interviews to clips from recording sessions, public appearances, and paparazzi.
There’s such an overwhelming amount of telling footage that, in any other situation, it would be natural to assume it was carefully orchestrated to look candid, à la the Kardashians. Of course, this wasn’t the case.
In fact, “Amy” is probably the truest, most authentic form of “reality TV” there is. By the end, we feel like we’ve gotten to know the real Amy, even if we’re only watching old clips of her joking around with her friends or listening to her rambling voicemails. This is the funny, cheeky, passionate girl that was so often buried under all the sensationalism.
Amy Winehouse’s music serves as a haunting musical backdrop to the documentary, but Kapadia takes the music’s role in “Amy” one step further: Any time one of Winehouse’s songs is introduced, he made the inspired decision to have the lyrics tastefully (and unobtrusively) displayed on screen — establishing the songs as more than just Amy’s poetry, but as a portal into the troubled singer’s emotions and psyche.
If “Amy” achieves anything, it’s that it deeply humanizes a figure who many knew only through the bad PR she raked up and the tabloids she was constantly featured in. Winehouse isn’t here to speak for herself, so Kapadia lets her cherished, autobiographical lyrics do it for her.
In one scene, we see Winehouse lounging around during her first stint in rehab. “Sing your favorite hit ‘Rehab’…can we have the new updated version please?” says her husband, Blake. It’s a funny scene, but it’s also a moment that can’t help but mimic all the faux clever headlines — “Winehouse Says Yes Yes Yes to Rehab” – that capitalized on her downward spiral. “Rehab” was far more literal than most fans realized at the time.
About midway through “Amy,” there’s a very evident shift from the Amy Winehouse just getting started in the music business to the one struggling with substance abuse. Throughout the documentary, blame shifts from person to person, enabler to enabler, with Winehouse’s father, ex-husband, and second manager coming off the worst. When she retreats to St. Lucia in yet another attempt to get clean, her father brings a camera crew to film a documentary, seemingly for his own financial gain. Those cameras capture an uncomfortable moment between Winehouse and two fans, who approach her for a picture. “I’m really sorry about this,” the starstruck man says. “If you were that sorry, you wouldn’t have asked,” she retorts as she poses for the picture. Afterwards, her father scolds her for her behavior. “They got the photo they wanted; I don’t think they gave a f**k about anything else.” Winehouse shoots back.
Unfortunately, it’s an all too true statement on the even relationship between fans and those they worship. They’ll cheer and scream and throw all of their money down on albums and concert tickets, but when things get rough, they’re a part of the chorus laughing at jokes told by talk show hosts at her expense, and retweeting the countless videos of an inebriated and disoriented Winehouse being booing her off stage during her last concert in Belgrade. We always hear about the “price of fame,” so much so that the words themselves have become a cliché. In “Amy,” they’re more than just a common phrase: they’re a tragic reality for a hugely talented musician, gone too soon.