The Amy Winehouse documentary AMY is a stunner. Just like the subject at the heart of the film, AMY flies from great heights only to crash into painful waves that broke my heart over and over in ways that her music never could. It is a wonderful film and entirely special amongst other music documentaries for it takes on the role of emotional historian rather than supplying creative background. We could spend the whole film learning how Winehouse found her voice, or how she learned of her great talent, but instead director Asif Kapadia (SENNA) choses to focus on the destructive life of a star who burned too brightly too fast.
AMY opens with an impossibly beautiful private moment shared between Winehouse and her closest girlfriends. She is celebrating a 14th birthday and belting “The Happy Birthday Song” louder than anyone in the room. Although her friends demonstrate their singing chops and interests in becoming performers, Winehouse stands out as the true talent while her friends fade into the background. This two-minute introduction sets the scene for the rest of Winehouse’s life in AMY. She is this magnetic talent who everyone wants to be around but also a destructive force in her life as well as those she loves.
As the film moves along we learn more details about Winehouse. How she grew up, how she fell in love fast and grew bored even faster. She was competitive and manipulative. Winehouse’s talent was no joke and even five years after her death she is still defined by her death rather than the life she had. Her drug addiction overshadowed her talent in the end, and like any young talent who dies too early; Winehouse is now only a shadow of a person. Kapadia wants none of this, instead he wants to showcase her talent and her humanity while spinning the camera back on the tabloid industry that built her up only to exploit her.
Kapadia pieces together unseen home footage of Winehouse with her live performances and interviews. He also steps away from Winehouse to offer a glimpse into her life through the eyes of those who knew her the best: her friends. Her childhood friends that we met in the introductory scenes turn into AMY narrators to help fill in gaps where Winehouse’s music and archival interviews fall short. She is not just this junkie whose final days were marred with public embarrassment, she is actually a thoughtful and sensitive person who lost her identity when the cameras started flashing in her face.
This Amy, the Amy her friends and loved ones saw was the person Kapadia and his contributors wanted viewers to remember. He’s a revisionist, insisting that yes Winehouse died from consequences of her own actions, but that success isolated her and opened her up to bad influences who proved to contribute to her downfall. AMY spares no expense placing the blame on Winehouse’s death on the drugs in her life, but they weren’t all things she snorted or shot in her veins—sometimes those drugs came in the form of people she thought loved her.
AMY is out in theaters today. Bring some tissues and prepare to sit alone in the theater for a few moments after the credits roll. You’ll need the breathing room.