The death of Amy Winehouse on July 23, 2011 wasn’t a surprise. Since her global emergence with sophomore album Back to Black, a swarm of media attention captured Winehouse’s frequent substance abuse, sprinkled with brief bouts of sobriety. Her death was seen as a tragic inevitability. What makes Amy, director Asif Kapadia’s documentary about the late singer/songwriter, so compelling is how the film lays out the tremendous potential this woman had, and how her downfall was made an inevitability not only by her own choices, but by those around her.
As Amy makes abundantly clear, Amy Winehouse’s musical roots were deep in jazz. Between the two albums released during her lifetime, 2003’s Frank and 2006’s Back to Black, Winehouse channelled her love of jazz and the lyrics drawn from her own life into sounds rooted in classic soul and girl-group pop. It was startlingly different from the rest of the pop music scene of the 2000s, and yet it connected to audiences across the globe. The problem is that between her two albums, Winehouse’s issues with alcoholism, drug addiction and bulimia became increasingly pronounced, partly due to her on-off relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil. Their relationship provided the backbone to Back to Black, her greatest artistic achievement, but also began the real push towards her ultimate downfall.
There’s a sadness to Amy that permeates the film, knowing the ultimate downfall of its subject, because the film goes to lengths to reestablish a well-rounded representation of the woman whose legacy threatens to be dominated more by tabloid headlines than her tremendous talents. Throughout the film, there are moments where it’s painfully obvious that, had Winehouse and those around her taken a different path or made different choices, the course of her life may not have seemed so inevitable. Kapadia smartly weaves together home movies, paparazzi footage and TV appearances to drive the film; new interviews with those involved in Amy’s life appear via voiceover, which keeps any one figure from dominating the narrative. At times, the interviews are heard in contrast to what the footage otherwise suggests.
The saddest figures to come out of Amy are her childhood friends, first seen in archival footage that opens the film. Nick Schmansky, Winehouse’s manager during the early part of her career, shot a surprisingly large amount of footage behind the scenes when the two of them – Winehouse at 16, Schmansky at 19 – were just starting out, before the trappings of fame got to either of them. Their contributions eventually fade to newer figures coming into Winehouse’s life and paparazzi footage, detailing her every move and creating a sense of the total lack of privacy Winehouse felt.
While the film doesn’t point the finger at any one specific person as being the main person to drive Winehouse to her death, the person who comes off the worst is surprisingly not Fielder-Civil, who seems to acknowledge to some degree his part in her downfall. Rather, it’s Mitch Winehouse, the father Amy trusted who’s shown repeatedly making decisions that seem more self-serving than anything. As the film makes clear from multiple contributors, the line from her biggest hit, “Rehab,” captures Mitch’s judgment with the autobiographical line “my daddy thinks I’m fine.” The most damning and frustrating piece of the film shows Mitch surprising Amy with a TV crew for his reality show, My Daughter Amy, while Amy was at an island retreat to get away from drugs. The behind -the-scenes footage includes Amy asking Mitch, “Are you only interested in me for what you can get out of me?” Little wonder that Mitch has taken to disparaging the film.
And yet, the film doesn’t dwell entirely on Winehouse as victim. For all of the negative influences that dominated her life, the film also illustrates how these problems tied into her artistry. Early on, she talks about how music drives her. Later, following her night of wins at the 2008 Grammys, she relates to a friend, “This is so boring without drugs.” Her lifelong awe over idol Tony Bennett culminates in recording a duet with him, but she can barely hold herself together long enough to record with him, and she ultimately will fail to get herself together to create a career like his. The complexity of Amy Winehouse is stunning and frustrating, and if Amy does anything, it shows that she deserved far more than becoming the punchline she was viewed as on her way to her death.